Before Watchmen roundup, part 4
For the time being, Before Watchmen is over. The collected editions will be published soon, and we’ll have to wait and see if they turn out to be bestsellers. So far, it’s safe to say that the sales performance of the Before Watchmen comic books didn’t meet expectations, and the critical reception wasn’t enthusiastic either. On the other hand, I doubt that DC’s decision to pursue this project against the will of Watchmen creator Alan Moore will do them much harm in the long run. But will the Before Watchmen comics themselves be remembered? Here’s why I think they – or at least the four series I’ve read – should (or shouldn’t).
Before Watchmen: Ozymandias by Len Wein and Jae Lee: No one really needed to read this story, which blends re-told scenes we’ve already read in Watchmen (e.g. the Crimebusters meeting) with scenes that Moore left untold – most likely because they simply weren’t that relevant (e.g. the Kennedy assassination). Probably most people were reading it only because of Jae Lee’s art anyway, which once more turned out to be stunning indeed. This is a relatively rare example of a superhero comic not story-driven or character-driven, but art-driven. Presumably, Wein’s and Lee’s strategy was to create something visually different from the original Watchmen comic, because they knew they couldn’t match it. While Ozymandias isn’t necessarily the best Before Watchmen comic, it’s maybe the most interesting one regarding the relationship between prequel and original.
Final Verdict: ● ● ○ ○ ○
Before Watchmen: Minutemen by Darwyn Cooke: Now that was one plot twist that I hadn’t seen coming. The ending ties the story into a coherent package, making Minutemen a more self-contained comic than Ozymandias. The ways in which it relates to Watchmen are nevertheless intricate, too. More importantly, though, this is very much a Darwyn Cooke comic, particularly visually, and I can imagine it will be remembered as a logical continuation of his previous “retro” works, e.g. The New Frontier.
Final Verdict: ● ● ● ○ ○
Before Watchmen: Rorschach by Brian Azzarello and Lee Bermejo: The second half of this four-part series confirmed my suspicion that this was going to be a rather unexceptional story. Maybe Azzarello wanted to indicate that the death of the waitress made Rorschach even less sociable, turning him into the character we know from the original series. And yes, the villain wearing Rorschach’s mask is a powerful scene. But apart from that, this comic is only recommended for people who want to exhaustively survey the Azzarello/Bermejo cosmos (or the whole Before Watchmen “event”, for that matter).
Final Verdict: ● ● ○ ○ ○
Before Watchmen: Silk Spectre by Darwyn Cooke and Amanda Conner: I’ve already reviewed the complete series, and I still think it’s a solid comic, as long as you don’t compare it to Watchmen. If Amanda Conner’s comic output continues on such a high level of quality, Silk Spectre might go down in comics history as the series that put her name on the map for many readers.
Final Verdict: ● ● ● ○ ○
There are three Before Watchmen series I haven’t read in their entirety (plus the shorter Curse of the Crimson Corsair, Moloch and Dollar Bill):
For Before Watchmen: Dr. Manhattan, see this favourable review of #4 by Poet Mase at IGN.
If you’re interested in Before Watchmen: Nite Owl, I recommend the review of the final issue by Greg McElhatton at CBR.
Authors: Darwyn Cooke & Amanda Conner (writers), Amanda Conner (artist), Paul Mounts (colourist)
Pages: 22-24 (+2 pages of backup story)
Before Watchmen: Silk Spectre tells exactly the story you would expect from a prequel: an origin story. In the case of Laurie, the second Silk Spectre, a suitable ending of her story is obviously the Crimebusters meeting in 1966 (Watchmen #2, p. 9, and Watchmen #4, p. 17), and indeed this is the final scene in Silk Spectre #4. But where to begin, when the protagonist has been trained from earliest childhood to become a superhero? Darwyn Cooke and Amanda Conner have invented an episode in Laurie’s life that fulfils that purpose of an origin story: she runs away from home, goes out crime-fighting at night on her own, and defeats her first villain (a drug dealer).
This narrative outline is the most successful of all the Before Watchmen books, because it is the most self-enclosed story while still serving as a prequel to Watchmen. Minutemen and Ozymandias suffer from being too intricately interwoven with the original story, whereas the story of Rorschach seems too detached from the events in Watchmen to appear meaningful (at least so far). However, the connection between Silk Spectre and Watchmen isn’t one of simple succession either. On the one hand, there are a lot of allusions, both visual and verbal, to events in the past (i.e. before Silk Spectre) involving Sally Jupiter and the Minutemen. On the other hand, there is a lot of foreshadowing, my favourite instance being in issue #3 where one character says to Laurie, “I want you to live like the world’s gonna end… I dunno. Maybe tomorrow. Maybe in six months. Maybe in nineteen years.” – 19 years from 1966, that’s 1985, when the world almost comes to an end in Watchmen.
That being said, the connection to Watchmen isn’t entirely unproblematic: for example, I find it hard to believe that the whole story of Silk Spectre takes place in only a few months. And yet it must be so, because it starts on an unspecified day in 1966, and in May 1966, Laurie is already on patrol with Dr. Manhattan (Watchmen #4, p. 18).
Visually, Silk Spectre comes closer to the rigid nine panel grid of Watchmen than the other Before Watchmen books, but apart from that, the styles of Amanda Conner and Paul Mounts are a far cry from those of the original artists, Dave Gibbons and John Higgins. Both the art and the writing have a certain lightness to them, which creates an atmosphere far more cheerful than that of Watchmen. But wasn’t precisely that grim and gloomy tone one of the greatest achievements of the original series?
Rating: ● ● ● ○ ○
Last month I looked at Before Watchmen: Ozymandias, the storytelling of which I found disappointing. This month I’m going to look at two Before Watchmen titles which refer to the original Watchmen series in somewhat different ways.
Authors: Darwyn Cooke (writer/artist), Phil Noto (colourist)
Pages: 26 (#1) / 22 (#2-3) (+2 pages of backup story)
The fourth issue is already available (see e.g. this review at Major Spoilers), but as always I have to wait for the next mail order shipment to get it, so this review covers only the first three issues.
I imagine writing Minutemen must have been both easier and harder than the other Before Watchmen books: easier because not as much is said about them in Watchmen, which gives the writer more freedom, and harder for the same reason, because all the bits of information on the Minutemen scattered throughout the original comic need to be put together and integrated into a coherent story.
The framing narrative is Hollis Mason writing his book “Under the Hood” shortly after his retirement as the first Nite Owl in 1962, reflecting on his Minutemen days, and re-telling their story once again. This time, his story goes into more detail than what we have read in the “Under the hood” excerpts in Watchmen, and his words (caption text) are accompanied by pictures. As a result, we’re getting a much more fleshed out account of the formation of the Minutemen.
However, it’s more complicated than that. While Mason’s words refer to the pictures they’re placed in, it becomes clear that the art doesn’t merely illustrate the captions. We’re seeing things (and reading things in word balloons) that Mason cannot have seen (and heard), because e.g. in the episode on Hooded Justice in issue #1, he was standing in front of a building, but we get to see what happens inside it.
In issue #2, this narrative mode stops after the first ten pages, and from then on the text is only in straight dialogue (apart from a quoted poem interwoven with the main narrative). Mason’s 1962 voice returns in issue #3 for three pages, and then it’s word balloon text again, this time with the ironic addition of inserted panels from a fictitious 1940s “Minutemen #1” comic book. This more straightforward storytelling approach lends itself better to the episodes Darwyn Cooke tells: the ones that are not covered in Watchmen, e.g. the first Minutemen mission, or the expulsion of the Comedian after he had raped Silk Spectre. Other episodes contain scenes that explicitly show the homosexuality of Captain Metropolis, Hooded Justice and the Silhouette. Although Alan Moore/Hollis Mason strongly suggests this in Watchmen, showing it unambiguously takes away some of the mystery surrounding the Minutemen, so I’m not happy with Cooke’s choice to do so.
In general, though, I’m more comfortable with the storytelling approach in Minutemen than the one in Ozymandias. Add Cooke’s impressive reduced layouts and drawing style, and you end up with a solid comic book.
By the way, did anyone recognise what is depicted on the first panel of the second page in issue #1? All I can see is a manhole cover and rain, but what are the yellow and brown areas, and where exactly is that place supposed to be?
Rating: ● ● ● ○ ○
Review of Before Watchmen: Rorschach #1-2 (of 4)
Authors: Brian Azzarello (writer), Lee Bermejo (artist), Barbara Ciardo (colourist)
Pages: 24 (#1), 22 (#2) (+2 pages of backup story)
The outline of Rorschach is quite different: instead of fleshing out Rorschach’s origin story (which he himself tells in Watchmen), we’re following him on what could be an average day in his life as a masked vigilante, as he is going after a drug dealer ring. The story is set in 1977, 13 years after Walter Kovacs first donned the mask of Rorschach and 8 years before the beginning of Watchmen. Is this version of Rorschach any different from the one we’re familiar with from the original series? Maybe. I found both his caption text monologue (his journal) and his speech bubbles too verbose, his way with the Gunga Diner waitress too friendly. Either Brian Azzarello is going to put Rorschach through a change that will make him more like he is in 1985, or his Rorschach is just slightly different from Alan Moore’s.
Despite this possible inaccuracy in the writing and the so far unassuming nature of the story, this series is still a good read, mainly due to Lee Bermejo’s striking, timely (i.e. for the 21st century) artwork, and the brilliance that Barbara Ciardo’s colouring adds to it.
Rating: ● ● ● ○ ○
I confess: I have read and purchased copies of several Before Watchmen issues, and plan to continue to do so. For some people, this is an immoral act, equivalent to slapping Alan Moore in the face. Other people say Moore made a mistake when he signed his contract with DC, and now he has to pay for it. In any case, I was curious to see how the Before Watchmen books would handle the unavoidable intertextual challenges that come with such a task.
In preparation, I re-read Watchmen, to be better able to get all the references in Before Watchmen. Maybe that was a mistake, because it raised my expectations towards Before Watchmen even more. Consequently, I decided to read all seven #1 issues and then select which series I’m going to follow.
The books that I dropped after the first issue were Nite Owl, Comedian, and Dr. Manhattan. With Nite Owl and Dr. Manhattan, I found the stories were too close to the original series and didn’t add much to it, whereas the storytelling in Comedian was too slow-paced to convince me that the plot was going anywhere soon. That leaves me with Minutemen, Silk Spectre, Ozymandias, and Rorschach. Ozymandias is the only book so far of which I have read two issues, which I consider the minimum for a meaningful review. (Minutemen #2 came out earlier, but due to a mail order fail I didn’t get it yet.)
Review of Before Watchmen: Ozymandias #1-2
Authors: Len Wein (writer), Jae Lee (artist), June Chung (colourist)
Pages: 23 (+2 pages of backup story)
The framing narrative here is that Adrian Veidt tells his life story on October 11, 1985. I instantly recognized some of Veidt’s words as Moore’s, and thought that Len Wein just wanted to flesh out Veidt’s autobiography as told in Watchmen chapter XI (“Look On My Works, Ye Mighty…”). However, reading both sequences side by side reveals vast differences: in Watchmen, Veidt’s monologue takes place much later than October 11. The wording is different – sometimes considerably, sometimes only slightly, e.g.: “Strangely, before subduing Phoenicia, he had struck north toward Gordium” (Wein) vs. “Strangely, before subduing Phoenicia, he struck north towards Gordium” (Moore). And there are inexplicable visual differences too: in Watchmen, the gravestone of Veidt’s parents is rectangular with a rounded top, whereas in Before Watchmen he is standing at two gravestones in the shape of celtic crosses. So unless Veidt is randomly dropping roses at strangers’ graves, Jae Lee or Len Wein altered the appearance of the grave, presumably to make it look cooler.
The completely new things that Wein adds to Veidt’s origin story aren’t convincing either. As Jennifer Cheng already said in her review of Ozymandias #1 at CBR, it is hard to believe that the reason why Veidt would become the masked vigilante Ozymandias is to avenge his lover Miranda. Furthermore, given the importance attributed to this relationship, what are the readers supposed to make of Veidt’s homosexuality that is clearly hinted at some pages earlier?
Then again, the selling point of the book isn’t its plot, or its unlikeable protagonist. It’s Jae Lee’s spectacular art, as several other reviewers have pointed out. The success of Lee’s contrast-heavy style depends on good colourists, and luckily, June Chung is more than up to this job. Thus, Before Watchmen: Ozymandias is a series that makes me want to read more by Jae Lee and less by Len Wein.
Rating: ● ● ○ ○ ○
As for “The Curse of the Crimson Corsair”, the backup story by Len Wein and John Higgins: while “Tales of the Black Freighter” was smartly interwoven with the main story in Watchmen, an independent pirate/horror story spread across all Before Watchmen series doesn’t make sense to me. I wouldn’t mind reading a well-written and well-drawn standalone comic book in this genre, though (and the success of the Pirates of the Caribbean films shows that this genre has market potential).