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Friday, August 26, 2016

Film Adaptation of The Monolith Announced

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Edited by Robert Beach

Oh, good, a superhero film announcement colored by questions about copyright ownership. This is going to be a fun one. So, Lionsgate Pictures has announced they’re adapting the 12-issue maxiseries The Monolith, written by Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti with art by Phil Winslade, Tomm Coker, and Peter Snejberg. Fans of the comic (they are out there even if The Monolith was never the same monster success as Palmiotti’s Jonah Hex or Harley Quinn work) rejoiced that the story of a super Golem on the streets of New York would be adapted to the big screen. 

However, the studio announcement also brought questions as DC Comics, who are owned by Warner Brothers, published The Monolith.  but Lionsgate, a competitor, is making the film. Well, strap right in, and we’ll dive down the bizarre hole of ownership, modern creator rights, and why Monolith is something you should actually care about. 

So the thing to understand about modern creator rights is that they’re almost entirely shaped by massive upheaval that went on in the ‘90s. Prior to that era, the basic divide between creator and publisher was that creators were paid a flat rate for their work and the publisher owned anything they invented. 

When Wolverine joined the new X-Men team in 1975, his creator Len Wein didn’t see any of the profit from his monster success because Wein had already been paid his flate rate for writing the issue of Incredible Hulk where Wolverine debuted. This was just one of the requirements of companies looking to build a stable of characters and have them all crossover and interact; it just happened to be a requirement that completely screwed over the artists and writers. 

When a whole cadre of artists in the ‘90s became massive celebrities, they decided they were finally going to do something about that shabby treatment. Their solution was to found Image Comics, yet it was how they structured Image that’s important here. 

Image wasn’t a published house so much as it was a confederation of 6 individual publishers tied to 6 of the 7 founding creators: Jim Lee, Rob Liefeld, Todd McFarlane, Erik Larson, Jim Valentino, and Marc Silvestri. Each of the creators' individual studios maintained the rights to their creations, and the Image Comics imprint was in charge of producing and distributing their work. 

Even though Image has only now become a true competitor against Marvel and DC, fellow major creators have adopted their structure, and that’s the case with Monolith.  Despite DC Comics producing Monolith, it was owned and published through Paper Films Inc., the private studio of Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray. In 2013 when DC failed to continue producing new material tied to the characters, the license reverted to Paper Films Inc., who have now optioned the IP into a film deal. 

This bizarre set-up is a big part of why wholly new characters are so rare with the big 2 publishers. They don’t want to risk a super popular new hero that they have to pay to use forever. It’s much more financially secure for them to create rehashes of old characters under their own trademark like Ms. Marvel, Jane Foster Thor, or Miles Morales Spider-Man rather than gambling on a new idea. 

That’s the "Why" of Monolith and why so many new comic heroes are revamps of older characters. Now comes the question: WHAT is Monolith? The titular Monolith was a golem created in 1920s New York to protect a Jewish neighborhood from various gangsters of the time. 

The comic series, however, was set in the present day and followed the granddaughter of Monolith’s creator Alice as she tried to navigate her way through modern day New York with Monolith as her friend/protector.  The series is solid overall with some cool mysticism involving demons and an evil Golem as well as a cameo appearance by Batman in issues 6-8. 

The series is also fairly unique in that it’s one of the few comic series with an explicitly and purposefully Jewish main cast. I’ve talked about this recently with Ragman, but for the most part, Jewish characters in comics are Jewish by accident, rarely making an impact on their identity. 

A lot of the time, Jewish characters will end up actively resisting that identity with folks like Moon Knight, Sasquatch, Scarlet Witch, and Wiccan all tied to magic and religion specifically other to Judaism. Monolith is one of the only examples of Jewish mysticism in comics alongside fellow Golem-inspired character Ragman and Marvel’s 1970s horror hero The Golem. 

I’ve already discussed the counter-intuitive shortage of Jewish characters compared to the abundance of Jewish creators, but in the case of Jewish mysticism, I do get why that’s so underrepresented. As a practicing Jew and a student of Kabbalah, I can definitely admit our particular brand of the magical is a lot more mercurial and philosophical than the iconography of Norse or Egyptian magic. 

It’s just a matter of not being able to slot the visual tropes and iconography of Hebrew mysticism into a comic book setting because most of our stuff is about explaining how the universe reflects humanity. For instance, the Sephiroth, one of the most famous visuals in Jewish mysticism, is a map of creation and how it reflects the process by which we create an idea. 

As for the Monolith movie, it’s certainly an intriguing idea. I do wonder how Lionsgate plans to pull it off. The thing about Monolith is that his comic is decidedly low key and stakesless in a weird way. Every problem is solved in the same manner: Monolith senses danger and bursts in to punch it to death.  There’s never a need for him to train, improve, or for the heroes to discover a secret weakness; he just solves everything by beating up baddies. 

At the same time, the people he fights are never that major. The threats never encompass the world or the country or even the city; it’s usually just stuff that’s directly harmful to Alice. I’d be down for a more low-key superhero story or a period adventure set in the 1920s. I’m not sure most audiences are willing to give up that level of scope and scale just yet. 

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