Thursday, March 25, 2010

Who wants the Watchmen, Part 2

Who wants the Watchmen?

In short - not me.

Don't get me wrong - it's a great story. However, I have no desire to play out their tragic tale on a Heroclix map and no illusions that these characters are worth emulating or idolizing, even in fantasy. Furthermore, I think the characters cannot be done justice when translated to a board game without simultaneously mocking the source material.

Heroclix is a very dynamic game system featuring hundreds of unique characters each capable of a wide array of powers. The Watchmen features a number of gritty, "real-world" characters, with a very narrow power set. Spider-man ties up villains in a web, crawls along walls, and can pick up cars. Rorschach beats people up, and... um... improvises a flame thrower with some hair spray. See the difference?

I trust that the Neca/Wizkids will deliver some dynamic dials, though they may not be accurate. For a majority of the Watchmen's story the heroes are out of shape, having retired from crime-busting years ago. This sounds as exciting to me as a Heroclix set featuring Al Bundy and Al Roker. Watchmen is a story of humans playing make-believe Supermen, where Heroclix is a game of humans playing with make believe Supermen. Now with the Watchmen collector's set, players have the option to field a team of regular dudes pretending to be heroes.


Dr. Manhattan might be the one exception to the rule, that is if he weren't so messed up mentally. As the only character with true super power in the story he could have made an interesting game piece if not for the fact that he spends most of the tale deep in thought, contemplating a course of action - to intervene in the affairs of mortals, (and thus deny them free will) or let events play out with disastrous consequences. Consider most of the characters hardly see action in the story, which also makes translating them to a game even more difficult.

Examine for a moment, just who the Watchmen battled in their universe. Rorschach spends more time fighting police and civilians than super-villains. Nite-Owl and Silk Specter tussle with gang bangers in an alleyway, in a fight that completely exhausts them.

Most of the real hardcore action goes on behind the scenes (Comedian's Murder, Moloch's death) or is covered in brief one panel snippets (Viet-Nam), and barely provides enough information to construct an accurate representation of a board game. Really, there's not a single antagonist in the story, aside from Ozymandis, that couldn't be represented with a Bystander Token.Power discrepancy issues aside there's another, larger reason I have no interest in the collector's set.

It seems as though Wizkids was so concerned if they could make a Watchmen set, that they never asked themselves if they should make it.

The Watchmen showcases a group of dark, sinister characters that would never pass muster as heroes in any sense of the definition.

Consider some of their actions during the course of the story. Comedian murders journalists to bury a scandal, rapes another hero, kills the mother of his unborn child (while Manhattan watches no less). Manhattan helps bring Ozymandis' plan to fruition and executes Rorschach to keep him from going public. Given the gravity of the story I can't bring myself to a point where I'd could field the Watchmen on a Heroclix map without feeling like I was idolizing them.

To me, Watchmen is an iconic property that you don't tinker with, less the original story lose weight. Merchandising is a slippery slope that threatens to undermine the characters diminishes the impact of their narrative, and brings the concept one step closer to parody. Today they're game pieces, tomorrow they're selling Doritos, and in three years they've got a cartoon. Eventually, the original meaning of their story is lost on the road to a quick buck.

Still, fans of the property have clamored for years to see this property translated to clix, and I'd hate to rain on their parade (even if Dr. Manhattan is only a fifth level magic user). It was bound to happen sooner or later - after all eventually the copyright to everything will be available for anyone to mess with.

Though it doesn't mean I have to buy it.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Once Upon a Time in Detroit...

True Story – the crime rate in Detroit was once so high that the Justice League of America relocated their base of operations to a warehouse in a gang infested inner city neighborhood. Detroit was suffering from white flight, their housing market had tanked to the point where people were burning their homes because they could get more for the insurance money than from selling them for market value.

The year was 1984 and the Motor City had just earned a new nickname, the “Murder City,” with a yearly homicide rate in the high 700’s (think: two people a day). In addition to rampant manslaughter, 1984 saw over 800 separate cases of arson around Devil’s Night alone, but crime wasn’t the reason the JLA set up shop - it was supposed to be a savvy marketing move from DC Comics.

Everyone in 1984 had Detroit fever, thanks in large part to the Tigers, on the verge of winning the World Series. It doesn't take a private investigator to uncover why Detroit was huge in 1984, but it wouldn't hurt to consult one anyways.

Also huge in the mid-eighties? The growing Brat Pack teen market. The Baby Boomer's kids had finally grown up, and were spending money at movies, arcades, and yes - on comics. The creative forces behind JLA jumped on the Midwest/teen angst market wagon, restructuring the team's line-up and setting them up in a new city, featuring a newer, younger ensemble cast that like something out of a John Hughes film.

In addition to team staples Aquaman and Martian Manhunter, the Detroit Breakfast Club included Elongated Man, Steel, Vixen, Gypsy and Vibe, with every personality archetype necessary for a good movie:

Wait. What? Who?
At the same time Coca Cola was changing its formula, The Justice League underwent a radical revamp in which League mainstays such as Batman and Wonder Woman were passed over in favor of new teen heroes, more ethnically diverse and with real life issues than the Justice League of wealthy, privileged white people ever was.

Superman, only vulnerable to Kryptonite, was out. In his place was another man of Steel, who's vulnerabilities included controlling parental figures. Feral Vixen had a number of personal demons to overcome and teenage Gypsy ran away from her abusive parents. None compared however, to Vibe, a trash talking, break dancing, gang banging inner city Latino teen capable of causing mini earthquakes who dealt with escalating gang warfare in his neighborhood. If he sounds like a bad stereotype, it's because he is, or rather was.

Like New Coke, and the teen-centric 1985 cast of SNL (that featured Brat Packers Anthony Michael Hall and Robert Downey Jr as cast members) The Detroit League failed to connect with an audience and didn't last long. Hardcore fans wanted their Super Friends back, and started a letter writing campaign calling for the deaths of these teen upstarts. DC listened to their readers and the Detroit League, like so many other experimental corporate endeavors of that era tried to course correct.

Where Coke switched back to the classic formula and Lorne Michaels trapped most of the cast of SNL in a fire opting to start fresh next season (ushering in the Dana Carvey/Mike Meyers years), the Justice League were kicked out of Detroit. SNL's deaths were part of a comedic sketch, but DC was much more sinister giving the fans exactly what they wanted - heads on plates.

Less than a year after the Detroit Exodus the team was picked off one by one by killer robots, a grisly move that foreshadowed the fate of another teen hero a few years later when DC set up a 900 number giving fans control over the fate of Robin (they killed the Boy Wonder as well). The end results were the same, a blank slate, a clean page. Message received:

Detroit 1 - JLA 0

It's too bad, really. Between the Big Auto bailout, bankruptcies, and a housing market even worse than the 1980's - Detroit could really use the League's help today. Perhaps it would've ended differently had the League set up shop in Shermer Illinois.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Who wants the Watchmen?

Wizkids recently announced the release of a Watchmen Heroclix collectors set, which begs the question, who wants the Watchmen?

The answer, of course, is fans, collectors, and perhaps the ever present power gamer looking to exploit the game dial of an uber-powerful Dr. Manhattan.

So why did the Watchmen announcement come as something of a surprise to the Heroclix community?

Before Neca took the reigns, when Heroclix flew under Topps' banner, it was publicly stated, in more than one Q&A chatroom and forum thread that the powers that be would never authorize a Watchmen set. Reasons were always murky - some speculated licensing rights were an issue, while others questioned the marketability of a product that promoted some seriously screwed up people masquerading as heroes. In a game that was remarkably kid friendly, upselling a set full of murderers, rapists, and psychotic malcontents (with leather fetishes no less) as a mainstream product was a gamble big corporate wasn't willing to take.

Heroclix fans then took it upon themselves to "Dial H for Hero" and create their own custom heroclix figures and dials. Modifying existing sculpts was the easy part - determining how to translate the heroes power set to a clix dial caused some real online arguments. Many felt most of the Crime Busters deserved to be Bystander Tokens, and a strong argument could be made as such considering the overall lack of action in the Watchmen series itself. Sure, there's moments punctuated by some fighting, but no one in that universe has any "real" powers outside of Dr. Manhattan.

Regardless, the 2009 Watchmen movie certainly helped move the property into the mainstream spotlight, and renewed interest in the intellectual property, something Neca is attempting to capitalize on. Will they succeed? Early rumblings put the 25 figure set into a $99 MSRP bracket (giant blue Manhattan sold seperately), a point which has caused outrage among many fans used to buying blind boosters.

I personally find the $99 price tag refreshing - it's a "one and done" purchase that guarantees a complete set from an initial outlay of cash. No more buying blind boosters in hopes of the one rare you need. No bazillion copies of the common Captain Carnage. No outrage over chase figures. Chase Rohrschach in civilian identity won't be fetching >$100 on ebay.

Is it an expensive set? Of course this all depends on level of want, and income. Some argue the $4 per figure price tag is too high, compared to the current ratio in "grab bag" boosters (~$12 for 5 random figures). I suspect fans will buy this set regardless, and I don't think a lot of extra product will sit on shelves (the way Icons, Universe, and Indy boosters seem to have this problem). I'm all in favor of promoting less waste.

Because the set has a limited appeal compared to the more mainstream characters offered in DC & Marvel random packs I expect Neca may be hedging their bets with Watchmen, and I don't blame them a bit. The cost of production, and licensing fees likely isn't cheap for a one time product, and I expect a smaller print run overall, so I'm not appalled as most are by the sticker shock.

Likewise, this isn't a set meant to be picked up by a newcomer to the game - it's rightfully geared towards adults at specialty stores. This isn't a stepping stone for new players. Children won't be persuading parents to buy Watchmen boosters at Target with a $99 price tag.

But Mom, it's got SOOOPER HEROES!

Imagine the awkward conversations between parent and child about the "nekkid blue guy" the kid pulled out of the department store booster pack. The angry phone calls to Neca. The Senate committee to investigate the corruption of our youth. Perhaps the price point is worth circumventing that headache as well. I don't take it as a serious threat, but it is no doubt a point to consider in a society bent on frivolous litigation.

The promotional ads for the original comic series ran with the tag "Who Watches the Watchmen?" a nod to the question put to Socrates in Plato's The Republic, regarding the use of ultimate power. For the Heroclix set, a better question might be:

Who wants the Watchmen... for $99?