Before Watchmen: some final thoughts

Before Watchmen roundup, part 4

The Comedian through the ages: in Before Watchmen: Minutemen, Before Watchmen: Silk Spectre, and Before Watchmen: Ozymandias

The Comedian through the ages: in Before Watchmen: Minutemen, Before Watchmen: Silk Spectre, and Before Watchmen: Ozymandias

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):

The final issue of Before Watchmen: Comedian has been reviewed by Jesse Shedeen at IGN and Matthew Peterson at Major Spoilers.

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.

Before Watchmen roundup, part 1

From "Before Watchmen: Ozymandias #1"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

Language: English
Authors: Len Wein (writer), Jae Lee (artist), June Chung (colourist)
Publisher: DC
Pages: 23 (+2 pages of backup story)
Price: $3.99

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).