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When the “Before Watchmen” project was announced in February 2012, I had only recently rekindled my love affair with comic books. My first on-line contribution to comic book discourse came in the form a fanboy-type suggestion. I’d just finished The Long Halloween, Hush, and Jeph Loeb’s run on Superman/Batman, so I innocently posted a comment on a news article that I thought Loeb should contribute to the “Before Watchmen” project. Within seconds, I received a scolding from some other random netizen about how Jeph Loeb would only bring death and rape to the Watchmen universe. At the time, I hadn’t familiarized myself with Loeb’s Ultimate contributions in the Marvel Universe, so I didn’t really understand what the other commenter was talking about. I also didn’t think death and rape were out of place in the Watchmen universe. Watchmen is one of the touchiest subject in comics and its touchiness is largely manufactured by the comics and comics news industry, particularly by Alan Moore himself. I’ve discussed Alan Moore’s diva-like behavior on this site before and that’s not my intention here. I’m using this space to share my thoughts on the “Before Watchmen” project and will try to do so in as much of a Moore-Gibbons vacuum as possible. The series have been collected in four beautiful hardcover editions- like nearly all comics, I tried to avoid this series until they were all collected in trade editions.

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Here’s the short version:

I really liked “Before Watchmen” and think the haters either didn’t read it or read it with their minds already sown up tightly by their off-putting and thinly developed cultural elitism.

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Here’s the long version:

“Before Watchmen” does the comic book magic- taking the familiar and making it feel new. Looking at the original and looking at the prequels feels as radically different as looking at Golden Age comics and Silver Age comics. The comic medium has matured and it can clearly be seen here. The seriousness with which all of the creators approached this project with is apparent in every panel. The art is a serious departure from the tiny paneled original series. Similarly the text is less cluttered and more experimentally displayed than in the original.

While the four volumes could be read in any order, I will discuss them in the order that I read them, which worked well for me.

BEFORE WATCHMEN: MINUTEMEN-SILK SPECTRE

Darwyn Cooke and Amanda Conner should work together as much as possible. Their styles capture an essence of sequential art that other artists miss, a humanity unique to the comic book form. Cooke’s Minutemen story is largely the story of Hollis Mason, the original Nite Owl, and his struggle with the dark side of costumed crime-fighting. His unfortunate crush on Silhouette, the awkwardness of Captain Metropolis and Hooded Justice’s relationship, the commercialization inherent in Silk Spectre, Dollar Bill, and the Minutemen project itelf- all of these issues are seen through a somewhat existentialist Mason’s eyes as he comes to grips with the hypocritical society to which he belongs. Moving from the original Silk Spectre to her daughter makes the transition to Conner and Cooke’s Silk Spectre story logical. The mother-daughter relationship is explored, bringing to mind toddler beauty pageants and the millions of other ways parents suffocate their children, but with superheroes. Laurie runs away to find her own destiny, looking in LSD-riddled 1960s San Francisco. She encounters an enemy that Thorstein Veblen would certainly appreciate and causes her mother plenty of grief. While reading it, I sort of expected Mina Murray from LOEG Century 1969 to cameo in someone’s acid trip. I highly recommend this volume.

BEFORE WATCHMEN: OZYMANDIAS/CRIMSON CORSAIR

Len Wein works with several artists to provide more complete accounts of the Crime Busters’ Ozymandias and the Minutemen’s Dollar Bill. The bulk of the collection is the Ozymandias story, which relates most closely to the ultimate plot of the original series and explains Moloch’s role in everything clearly. Jae Lee’s art is top notch. If you compare the still amazing art Lee was doing for Namor twenty years ago to his work in Ozymandias, you can see how Lee has mastered his own style and how working with colorist June Chung bring his pictures to a whole other level. The art from The Curse of the Crimson Corsair and the Dollar Bill one-shot are very different from Lee’s high art style. Crimson Corsair sports the gritty pulp art of horror comics while Dollar Bill features colorful art that wouldn’t have looked out of place in the Before Watchmen: Minutemen/ Silk Spectre collection. To be honest, I didn’t really enjoy the Crimson Corsair story, but I didn’t really enjoy the Black Freighter stuff in the original series.

BEFORE WATCHMEN: NITE OWL/DR. MANHATTAN

J. Michael Straczynski pens three great stories here: Nite Owl, Dr. Manhattan, and Moloch. The Nite Owl story features the best recreation of Rorschach and a stomach-turning villain more suited to Rorschach’s brand of justice than Nite Owl’s more moderate approach. The Dr. Manhattan story delves into the practicalities of Shrödinger’s cat, modal realism, parallel universes, and the nature of time. The final product is a successful experiment. The final story told in this collection Moloch ties closely to Len Wein’s Ozymandias story. It’s a good villain story- in addition to my controversial stance that “Before Watchmen” is a worthwhile idea that was brilliantly executed, I’m also excited about September being Villains Month.

BEFORE WATCHMEN: COMEDIAN/RORSCHACH

I really like Brian Azzarello especially his Wonder Woman stuff. However his contributions here sit weirdly among the other ones. The Comedian story reads like an Elseworlds Watchmen story, one where the Comedian is best buddies with the Kennedys. In Azzarello’s telling, the assassinations of both brothers are pivotal moments in the Comedian’s development as a character, but they run contrary to previous incantations of the Comedian, such as:

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or

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Despite contradicting the original comic and Zack Snyder’s more blatant assertion that the Comedian played a role in John F. Kennedy’s assassination, Brian Azzarello’s Comedian is a compelling read rife with dark humor and a rich understanding of the Kennedys and how the military industrial complex matured in the decades following World War II. I also really like Hearts and Minds. While Azzarello’s Rorschach is also an interesting, it fails where Straczynski’s Nite Owl interpretation of Rorschach succeeds. Azzarello scripts Rorschach like Batman while Straczynski captures the fractured poetry of Rorschach. While writing of Rorschach disappoints, the art does not. Having worked with Azzarello on Luthor and Joker, Lee Bermejo brings his artistic strengths to every disgusting wound, stain, insect, and bodily fluid in Rorschach. Fans of Bermejo’s work will get lost in the gory detail and reborn with each breathtaking sunset.

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In conclusion, I recommend all four volumes and strongly discourage arm-chair critics from attacking this project until they’ve given it a chance.

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