Review: Before Watchmen - First Issues / Writer: Various / Art: Various / Publisher: DC / Release Date: Out Now
A couple of months ago, everyone was denouncing DC for going against Alan Moore’s wishes and bringing the Watchmen universe back in the form of prequels. The outcry died down when the impressive creative teams were announced, and then dissipated altogether when the generally positive reviews hit the ‘net.
All the Before Watchmen #1s are on shelves now (and some of the #2s too), so it’s time to look at whether DC have future classics on their hands, or whether, like the Matrix sequels, they’re just detracting from the brilliance of the original.
Moore and Dave Gibbons crammed an awful lot into their time-jumping mini-series. Three key time periods were explored, every character got their own arc, and even the background characters – like some of the original Minutemen – had moments that hinted at their wider stories. So the main objection to Before Watchmen was that there simply wasn’t any story left to tell. This was a particular concern for Nite Owl II and Rorschach, who were arguably Watchmen’s leads. Rorschach, by Brian Azzarello with art by Lee Bermejo, certainly has nothing new to say about the character. What we have in issue one is Rorschach on a bog-standard mission to take down some drug dealers, with some serial killer action going on in the background. Nite Owl focuses on his relationship with original Nite Owl Hollis Mason and offers up an earnest young Dan Dreiberg, not the middle-aged man in a rut that Moore gave us, and focuses on his period of teaming up with Rorschach. All the same, it’s nothing we didn’t already know about the character.
Comedian, by Azzarello and J. G. Jones, revels in and expands upon the alternate reality political landscape that Moore created, but further exploration of The Comedian has rendered him somewhat toothless, compared to Moore and Gibbons’ brutal characterisation. Dr Manhattan isn’t strictly before Watchmen, seeing as the character exists across his entire timeline simultaneously. Instead, J. Michael Straczynski and Adam Hughes explore the laws of probability, and look like they may well be crafting an alternate reality Instead-Of Watchmen, in which Dr Manhattan was never created.
But some of the books have a chance to address something really new. Ozymandias looks into the past of a character who, in order to keep the big twist a secret, remained a bit of an enigma in the original text. So everything we’re learning about the genius sociopath is a revelation, and shedding light on his attitude towards the world. As of issue one, though, there’s no answer to one of Watchmen’s more compelling questions: Was Dr Manhattan the only Minuteman with real powers, or did the bullet-catching Ozymandias have some of his own?
Minutemen and Silk Spectre also have the luxury of telling genuinely untold stories. Darwyn Cooke’s Minutemen has delved into the pasts of the background characters, with The Silhouette in particular emerging as the real hero of the fame-seeking bunch, and has given us a delicious glimpse of the teenage delinquent Comedian which was more interesting than his own title. Silk Spectre, by Cooke and Amanda Conner, is exploring a part of Laurie’s life which is completely new to readers – her first solo adventure away from her controlling mother, as she crafts her own identity as a teenager in the sixties.
So if you judge a book’s quality on whether or not it has something new to say, Minutemen, Silk Spectre, Ozymandias and Dr Manhattan would be the best books of the series. But that isn’t the be-all and end-all. With creative teams like this, they could tell any old derivative crap and still make it compelling.
Nite Owl, sadly, will be known as Joe Kubert’s last work in comics before his recent death. His work with his son Andy Kubert on the art adds a nice dynamic to the father-son themes of the book, and the scratchy old-school art style places it in a believable time period. Straczynski, though, isn’t at his best on writing duty here. His young Dan is fine, but his Rorschach dialogue is too ‘hurm’-heavy and reads like someone doing a bad impression of the iconic character.
Luckily, Straczynski’s work on Dr Manhattan is better. He tackles the mind-bending nature of the character head-on and manages not to tie himself in too many causality knots. The very scientific storytelling in that title renders it rather cold and theoretical, but that’s in keeping with the character. Luckily, Adam Hughes is on art duties – his first interior art in over a decade – and lends it a beauty and warmth that it wouldn’t otherwise have, with Dr Manhattan himself a chilly blue spot in the middle of lots of believable and complex humanity. Hughes needs to do interior art more often.
The other rather cold book in the series is Ozymandias. How could a book about the character we know is going to kill millions of people be anything other than cold? Len Wein takes us through Adrian’s young life as he gradually stops bothering to rein in his intellect and physical prowess, seduces some men and women, and generally doesn’t allow any of his experiences to actually get at him. Jae Lee crafts some beautiful art and incredible, circular layouts, while Adrian’s lack of humanity creeps into his art style. This book is something to look at and admire, but not to love. It is, perhaps unavoidably, quite alienating.
Comedian is a tricky book to place. The Comedian himself is one of comics’ greatest bastards, a rapist who takes pleasure in violence and, in the original comic, shoots dead a woman claiming to be pregnant with his child. There’s no way a new comic could make him any worse than Moore did. So Azzarello seems to have taken another approach – he’s making The Comedian a little bit, well, nicer. Sure, he kills Marilyn Monroe and looks very excited about getting stuck into Vietnam, but we also see him making friends with political figures and grieving for Kennedy. J. G. Jones clearly relishes the political side of the story, lovingly rendering the famous faces that this series is peppered with, and Azzarello’s work on the universe is smart, but it is a very American book, and probably more effective when read by someone who’s been brought up on that recent history. I know enough to understand it, but not enough to particularly care.
Azzarello is obviously DC’s go-to guy for violent characters, because he was also handed Rorschach. As I said, it’s one of the least original books in the series. It is set in a world almost identical to the neons and grime of the original series, and Bermejo creates the gritty locations and deformed villains with grindhouse levels of glee. Rorschach wouldn’t be at home in any other location, which is perhaps why he seems so out-of-place in Nite Owl. Azzarello nails without overdoing Rorschach’s speech patterns. Getting him out of his mask at the end and talking to civilians was the only thing in issue one that felt out-of-character. But, then, this is a younger, marginally less psychotic Rorschach. It’s a great book that really captures the dark and deranged spirit of the character, and of the nightmarish New York that Moore and Gibbons painted.
While Rorschach cleaves to the style of the original, Silk Spectre couldn’t be further from it. Conner creates a colourful, funny sixties world with surreal flashes of Laurie’s interior life in the form of cartoonish skits. Her world couldn’t be further from the one presented in the other Before Watchmen titles. It is warm and instantly loveable. Laurie was always one of the more sympathetic characters in the series, someone who never asked for this crazy superhero existence, and Conner and Cooke go all out to present her as a spunky teen hero. It is firmly rooted in the hippy and music scene of the era, and doesn’t feel remotely like a Watchmen book. But it’s excellent, and I want to see DC give Amanda Conner freedom like this on more titles.
Way ahead of the crowd, though, is Darwyn Cooke’s Minutemen. He had the benefit of the characters who had the most room for exploration, and he hit the ground running in a first issue that introduces us to every character in turn, from the crusading Silhouette and the mentally fragile Mothman to the media-whore Silk Spectre and the genuinely psychotic Hooded Justice. Who could possibly be better suited to this Golden Age group than the man who created Justice League: The New Frontier? Visually, it’s the sort of thing you want to cut up and stick on your wall. Story-wise, it’s nastier than you’d expect, with child murder and sadistic sex littering the pages and characters having their idealism stripped away in the most brutal ways.
If any of these books were to run and run, I’d want it to be Minutemen and Silk Spectre. I doubt my hunger for those titles will be sated after their run is finished. Having said that, I want to read more of Azzarello’s work on Rorschach, and the universe he’s created for the Comedian, although not necessarily with the Comedian at the heart of it.
All in all, this has been an unbelievably successful gambit for DC. None of the books are bad – some are merely better or worse than the others. No doubt they’re already eyeing where they can take the franchise next, but they were lucky this time with their choices of creative teams. If they want to continue to expand the universe they’ll need to remember that the talent is everything. Watchmen is still a tricky area, and any failure to do it justice will result in the critical mauling of their lives.