A few years ago, DC Comics tried to strike a deal with Alan Moore. They were willing to revert the rights to Watchmen back to its creator if Moore agreed to write “some dopey prequels and sequels.” Moore, of course, declined the offer. DC Comics went ahead with the dopey prequels, dubbing the titles Before Watchmen.
Anyone who’s read Watchmen should be familiar with the characters featured in the Before Watchmen series. The goal seems to rehash the flashbacks presented in Alan Moore’s graphic novel with more depth. However, if the goal is to achieve storytelling on the same level… Well, that differs from title to title.
It’s no secret that Ozymandias is an important character in the Watchmen story. He is, after all, the mastermind that solved the world’s conflict in the form of an intergalactic squid. While reading Watchmen, I didn’t find myself wondering his origin story. How did Adrian Veidt rise to heroism and, eventually, a twisted form of heroism? What inspired him to “save the world” in the way he did? None of that mattered during Watchmen. What mattered was that he stood in the center of his perfectly crafted plan and not a single member of his former team could stop him.
Writer Len Wein attempts an origin story in the pages of Ozymandias. Adrian Alexander Veidt decides to share his tale minutes before putting his plan into motion. There’s no doubt that Wein’s writing abilities are nothing outside wonderful. His story is well crafted, though at times, it feels like there’s a forcefulness to it. When Ozymandias meets The Comedian for the first time, it leaves a sour taste in a reader’s mouth. Really? The foreshadowing of an event we already know happens in the future? Seeing Adrian’s plan brought to life, does answer some unnecessary questions. In the end, the story has a Star Wars prequel feel to it. Only we know that, unlike Anakin Skywalker, Veidt doesn’t redeem himself at the end of the story.
Jae Lee’s artwork, however, is something that needs praising. His renditions of characters Dave Gibbons brought to life so long ago are spectacular. It gives the air that is worthy of an Ozymandias tale.
“Crimson Corsair” is clearly
a rip off inspired of “Tales of the Black Freighter.” As Jacob M. Held put it in Watchmen and Philosophy:
You don’t have to think too hard to see the connection between Rorschach and the Black Freighter, as our castaway feeds on “raw shark,” becoming darker and more sinister with every bite, his quest to give what is owed to the demon ship. He himself becomes a demon. His mission is no longer about his love for his family and his desire to protect them but merely about wreaking vengeance on the demon ship; revenge pure and simple, blood lust. [p. 21]
Alan Moore admitted that “Black Freighter” isn’t exclusively about Rorschach. He stated that the story is Ozymandias’ tale. It’s also nods towards Dr. Manhattan. So it’s questionable how “Crimson Corsair” links to Before Watchmen—except for the obvious comic within a comic book angle.
There is not much difference in Len Wein’s story. While his ability to capture a Moore-esque writing style is superb—haunting, even—it’s unnecessary. It’s almost as if Wein ignored what Alan Moore wrote in his Writing for Comics book:
Above all, I don’t want to produce anything that smacks even remotely of “How to Write Comics the Alan Moore Way.” Teaching a generation of emergent artists or writers how to copy the generation that came before was a stupid ideas when Marvel introduced their “How to Draw…” book and it would be equally irresponsible of me to instruct up-and-coming writers on how to write sickly extravagant captions like “Dawn transformed the sky into an abattoir” or whatever. John Buscema is a fine artist, but the industry doesn’t need 50 people who draw like him any more than it needs people who write like me. [pp. 1-2]
There’s nothing worthwhile about the tale. Much like “Black Freighter,” the story introduces a noble character who finds himself in a terrible situation. And like that character, Gordon McClachlan faces a test that he cannot pass. If this relates to any or all characters in the Before Watchmen is yet to be seen.
While not as gritty as “Black Freighter,” Steve Rude’s macabre style of artwork makes the story worth the read. Even when the predictable ending is revealed, his talent redeemed the book.
Remember Rorschach’s journal entry in the first issue of Watchmen? Where he lists several masks from the past? He mentions that a hero by the name of Dollar Bill was shot. The film adaptation even shows his death. That should have been enough, right? Nope. DC felt that we just needed to know more about the fallen hero.
In a one-shot issue found at the end of this volume, Len Wein gives a nod to Frank Miller’s Sin City by using a narrator speaking from the grave. The story is mediocre, though well written. And Steve Rude’s artwork is reminiscent of the early years of comic books. However, it isn’t enough to carry the story. I even found myself wondering why I bothered reading it at all.
I had my doubts about the Minutemen story. While I wanted to know more about them in the past, I learned to accept that they’re existence was to pave the way to the Keene Act. And to paint the illusion that masks had been policing the street since the early 1900s. I formed the opinion that should anyone tell the story of first hero team in the Watchmen universe, it should be the creator, Alan Moore. However, writer and artist Darwyn Cooke does a pretty damn good job.
His ability to shine light on characters long dead at the beginning of Watchmen filled me with glee. The way he created the chemistry (no matter how platonic it was) between Silhouette and Hollis was melted my cold heart to the idea of a prequel. And the case that led up to her murder? Let’s not forget the story shrouded in mystery—the vanishing of Hooded Justice.
Set in the time where homophobia ran rampant, the story is a perfect contrast to the harrowing tale Alan Moore presented, while not denying its darkness. And the early Superman/Batman artwork appeals greatly to the setting of the story. Even Comedian, who is the antithesis of Robin, glows with boy wonder illumination.
Because who didn’t fall in love with Laurie’s Silk Spectre II throughout the pages of Watchmen? I know I did. However, how essential is a heroine’s coming of heroism age story really important? I suppose if you throw her during the reign of free love and nonconformity, a writer and artist can throw in some naked bosoms. And a penis. And random acts of sex. But as long as it makes the story flow, right?
And flow it did. Though at times, the mimicry of the original Watchmen set up seemed insulting rather than a nod toward the Alan Moore/Dave Gibbons creation. And Frank Sinatra—excuse me, The Chairman—as the arc villain seemed cheesy with a side of Cheez Wiz. However, where Darwyn Cooke and Amanda Conner’s story failed, the latter’s artwork excelled.
With the cheesiness of the second story aside, this book excelled where the first book I read failed. All around, nothing about this book felt ripped off or repeated.
Nite Owl/Dr. Manhattan
J. Michael Straczynski creates a slight Batman/Catwoman backdrop in his Nite Owl tale. With Andy Kubert artwork, this idea comes to fruition. However, the cat and mouse—cat and bird?—tale is overused and fails to keep a reader motivated to continue onward with the story. Nite Owl II’s origin of being just a wimp in school who idolizes Hollis Mason’s original reeks of a Catcher in the Rye reading bromance tale. This one with a slightly better ending.
It’s a sad betrayal of the character. While he isn’t Hollis Mason, Rorschach, or even the Comedian, Nite Owl needed to remain the guiding light of the Watchmen. Of them all, he’s the most human character in Alan Moore’s world. This story failed in providing him a proper backstory. His light of morality, left burned out at the end of Watchmen never seemed to exist in this story. Mostly because it wasn’t touched upon.
After reading Watchmen, I often imagine that Dr. Manhattan embodied Superman if he were real. The alien creature in an alien world observing the creatures around him with a bit of bemused interest. There isn’t much of a backstory needed for his character to make sense in Watchmen. And Alan Moore made sure to cover that pesky seeing the future trait in the graphic novel, as well. That wasn’t enough for Straczynski as he needed to create a Flashpoint arc of his own for the limited series.
Adam Huges’ artwork does its best to keep the story flowing without annoying the reader. However, it’s not enough.
Why Moloch? Possibly because he’s the only villain in the Alan Moore tale that played a part in Watchmen. I wouldn’t call it a key role, but Straczynski sure as hell believed it was. Even made him Christlike, using artist Eduardo Risso to juxtapose the savior on the cross with Moloch as he searches for redemption. Nothing worthwhile. Nothing worth remembering. Just tucked in at the end of a his volume.
I saved the best for last. Or so I thought. The Comedian is dead throughout the pages of Watchmen. He only appears through flashbacks, filling the reader with little information about the character whose death sparks the story. Brian Azzarello takes upon himself to give the corpse an identity. And Comedian is just the Joker without the accident. Human qualities are given to the brute when the rest of the books ignore them. Why? No idea. Most of these stories intersect with each other, so there’s no plot holes. Edward is friends with the Kennedy boys? Really? He’s not the one behind the trigger when JFK was taken down? Really? He betrays Bobby’s trust in the end? That’s actually the only thing that makes sense. Half the time, while reading, I waited for Edward to joke about his origin— “Sometimes I remember it one way, sometimes another…”
J.G. Jones loans the artwork to this tale, giving the Comedian a much deserved clean-cut world. Something tells me DC left the nitty gritty for Rorschach.
Look at that. I’m correct in my assumption. Not quite though. Rorschach’s Journal carries throughout the pages of Watchmen—it is his journal, after all, that might unravel the injustice in the end. So it makes sense that Azzarello would use that. Rorschach is the sort to always carry a journal, after all. A serial killer stalks the night. An interesting tale for Rorschach indeed. Only, that’s not who he’s after. A group of thugs putting drugs on the street. Something that falls flat. Still, Rorschach. C’mon. This has to be good, right? Oh wait. A love interest? Lemme guess. The Bard (the serial killer) will go after her and that will make Rorschach bitter, right? Hurm. Nothing too original here.
Had it not been for Lee Bermejo’s artwork, this story wouldn’t have been worth the read. Sure. I’ll give you that much, DC.
All in all, the series is as entertaining and necessary as the Star Wars prequels. And if you feel that’s a good thing, then maybe you’re part of the problem. Here’s to watching DC create unnecessary sequels. Maybe Rorschach and Comedian aren’t really dead? Until next time, keep on hunting.