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.
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: ● ● ● ○ ○