'Before Watchmen': No controversy about its quality

By Andrew A. Smith

Scripps Howard News Service


Here in the real world, the DC series of miniseries called “Before Watchmen” was controversial. But there’s no debate about the quality of the stories themselves: They’re really good.


First, the controversy. It begins with writer Alan Moore, who became a legend in the 1980s, not only due to Watchmen and a brilliant re-invention of Swamp Thing, but also for  a number of projects for smaller publishers that became famous (and often famously bad movies), like From Hell, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and V for Vendetta.


But Moore’s relationship with DC began to sour, beginning with Watchmen itself (summed up neatly at Slate). A clause in the contract DC signed with Moore and artist Dave Gibbons established that the rights to Watchmen would revert to the duo as soon as it went out of print. But DC collected the series as a trade paperback – which as “the best-selling graphic novel of all time,” according to DC, has never gone out of print. Moore feels he was swindled.


Moore famously refused to take any money for the 2009 “Watchmen” film, which he referred to in the L.A. Times as “regurgitated worms” and “inherently unfilmable." And when DC announced “Before Watchmen,” Moore reacted much the same, telling The New York Times the prequel series was “completely shameless.”


“I don’t want money,” he told The Times. “I want for this not to happen.” And he suggested that anyone who supported the Watchmen prequels “would be doing me an enormous favor if they would just stop buying my other books.  When I think of my audience, I like to have good thoughts and think about how lucky I am to have one that is as intelligent as mine and as moral as mine” (interview with Seraphemera Books & Music).


Pretty strong stuff. And, given how shabbily the comics industry has treated its talent over the decades, one can’t help but see Moore’s point. On the other hand, is it fair to ask fans to forgo the best parts of their hobby in protest of something they can’t affect?  Should we stop reading Superman for how badly DC treated creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, or avoid seeing the Avengers movie because Marvel was mean to Avengers co-creator Jack Kirby?


That decision specifically comes into play with “Before Watchmen,” which are too good to avoid reading unless your conscience just won’t let you. You can judge for yourself, as all the Watchmen prequels have been released in four hardbacks coming out this month ($29.99 each), collected by author.


If you’ve read Watchmen (and who hasn’t?), you know that it had a surprise breakout star in the uncompromising, Manichean, scary-crazy Rorschach, and a surprise villain (which I will not spoil, in the unlikely event that is possible). The honor of both those roles falls to one character in these four prequels, which interconnect as they cover ground from when the Minutemen characters began to debut (1939) and the events of Watchmen (1985). That character is The Comedian, the disgraced former Minuteman, who shows surprising depth and – well, just surprises, in his every appearance. (Which is often; he turns up at critical times in most of the books, with his machinations often having profound effects on the other characters.)


Before Watchmen: Comedian/Rorschach tells his story, which involves the Kennedys, Marilyn Monroe, the Bay of Pigs, Vietnam and more Baby Boomer history than you can swing a protest sign at,  by crime-noir writer Brian Azzarello and artist J.G. Jones. And it’s a corker. The Rorschach story, by Azarello and artist Lee Bermejo, is less memorable, but offers insight into one of the most damaged, and therefore interesting, characters ever created.


But I’m getting ahead of myself: The book I’d recommend first would be Before Watchmen: Minutemen/Silk Spectre. The Minutemen story is the spine that holds all the rest together, stringing together hints from throwaway lines in the original Watchmen, like “Hooded Justice went missing in ’55,” and building a coherent, satisfying history with them. Minutemen was written and drawn by Darwyn Cooke (New Frontier) whose retro sensibilities make him the perfect creator for this project. He writes the Silk Spectre story, too, which is drawn by the always amazing Amanda Conner and deconstructs the complicated relationship between Laurie “Silk Spectre II” Juspeczyk and her mother, Sally “Silk Spectre” Jupiter, during the psychedelic ‘60s.


Before Watchmen: Nite Owl/Dr. Manhattan collects the entries by writer J. Michael Straczynski (Babylon 5), including the two-issue Before Watchmen: Moloch. The Nite Owl story expands on the history of the titular character’s 1970s partnership with Rorschach, as well as underscoring the erotic charge playing superhero gave to Dan Dreiberg, in conjunction with a new character, The Twilight Lady, an unnervingly confident dominatrix. The Dr. Manhattan story is gorgeously drawn by Adam Hughes, and is an interesting look at superheroics through the lens of quantum physics, while also answering the question “Why didn’t the virtually omniscient Dr. Manhattan know about the villain’s master plan in Watchmen and stop it?” The Moloch story, drawn by 100 Bullets artist Eduardo Risso, is a short, sad and very convincing tale of what might create a “supervillain.”


The least of the four is Before Watchmen: Ozymandis/Crimson Corsair, which collects the contributions by writer Len Wein, the original editor on Watchmen. It’s good – I’m a long-time fan of Wein’s – but just not as good as the others. The Ozymandias story is drawn by Jae Lee, whose weird, slick art seems like a throwback to an age that never existed, and is always a treat. But the story offers very little insight into the lead character than what we already knew. Crimson Corsair collects a story that originally appeared as two-page back-ups in all the “Before Watchmen” books, which necessarily makes it a really choppy read, compounded by the switch in writers midway from Wein to artist (and original Watchmen colorist) John Higgins. While reminiscent of the eerie Tales of the Black Freighter in Watchmen, that story echoed and underscored themes in its parent book, whereas Crimson Corsair is just a pirate horror story with no larger literary ambition. This book also includes the Dollar Bill one-shot, and while I enjoyed the wonderful, retro art by Steve Rude, it’s a one-note story about a one-dimensional character only notable for his slapstick death.


Is all that enough to overcome one’s urge to support Moore in his battle with DC? That’s up to the individual. But DC has made it hard by unleashing A-list talent on some of the most interesting characters ever created, and which we will likely not see again.


Contact Captain Comics at capncomics@aol.com.

Views: 731

Comment by Figserello on July 25, 2013 at 4:14pm

"which we will likely not see again"

Here's hoping...

Comment by Travis Herrick (Modular Mod) on July 25, 2013 at 5:23pm

"which we will likely not see again"

Here's hoping...

Indeed, if only so I don't have to hear Moore and his followers *still* crying about it.

Comment by Snapper Carr on July 25, 2013 at 6:14pm
Comment by Captain Comics on July 25, 2013 at 6:26pm

I just noticed that all of the faces on the covers are more or less vertical, but Ozymandias is ... crooked. Think that was on purpose?

Comment by Mark Sullivan (Vertiginous Mod) on July 25, 2013 at 8:45pm

I'm not keen on the concept, but I felt I had to order them for the library: lots of readers will be interested. I expect to read them myself, eventually, just to see how they came out.

Comment by Figserello on July 25, 2013 at 9:24pm

Just between us, I'll probably pick them up if they appear under my hand when I'm skimming the library shelves.  If nothing else, I have become curious how Azarello handles his rapist, woman-murdering hero.  That's a tough call for any writer.


The marketing campaign is still more interesting to me than the books themselves though.  Strange to see a corporation bring out the term 'controversial' every time they mention their project.  It's kinda passive-aggressive.  Like some kid pinning a 'kick me' sign on his own back before entering the playground.

Comment by Richard Willis on July 26, 2013 at 12:35am

I bought the original comics. I thought the Minutemen, Silk Spectre, Dr. Manhattan, and Nite Owl efforts were good, not great. I did like the way Cooke portrayed the throw-away character Silhouette, making her a real person. I thought the Azzarello and Wein efforts were erratic. Sometimes they seemed to be referencing the movie more than the original Watchmen.

Comment by Travis Herrick (Modular Mod) on July 26, 2013 at 10:31am

The marketing campaign is still more interesting to me than the books themselves though.  Strange to see a corporation bring out the term 'controversial' every time they mention their project.  It's kinda passive-aggressive.  Like some kid pinning a 'kick me' sign on his own back before entering the playground

A lot of companies embrace their products if they are controversial. Unless they might actually kill a consumer. Otherwise they seem to enjoy it. As they say there is no such thing as bad press.

Silk Spectre was a lot better than I thought it would be. I thought Nite Owl started off weak, but got better as it went along. I think JMS used Rorschach as a crutch. I didn't care for Dr. Manhattan at all. Still more good than bad here.

Comment by Philip Portelli on July 26, 2013 at 10:53am

Before Watchmen: Minutemen was the best of the bunch, probably because it owed the least to the original.

Comment by Captain Comics on July 26, 2013 at 2:56pm

I didn't double-check to see if it was all of them, but at least most of them presented the "Crimebusters" meeting from the original from the POV of whoever the title character was. By the third or fourth time I read it, I was getting tired of re-reading it. Of course, if you're only reading one or two, that wouldn't be a thing.

I also felt like Rorschach was used as a crutch in the Nite Owl story. He is the more interesting character, but the title was Nite Owl, not Nite Owl/Rorschach Team-Up. Rorschach had his own book! Then again, it was a better story with him in it, because he's a more interesting character! Still, good insight, Travis.

I really liked Silk Spectre, but some of that might be nostalgia. Cooke got a lot of the liberal, hopeful attitudes of the time right, and to tell you the truth, I miss that, especially given what I perceive as the right-wing tilt of the politics and media of the current day. And I also appreciate that he avoided what a lot of writers do when writing about the '60s and early '70s, like ridiculing them, or overusing the slang of the time. (Yes, we did say "outta sight" and such, but not constantly and just when contextually appropriate. We used the slang of the day to sound cool, not to sound like clowns. Just like slang now, duh.) I'm not trying to be political, but to tell you the truth, I think the youth movement of my youth has endured 30-40 years of demonization by the right wing, which the media has adopted as a given, to the point where left-wing protests of today are utterly ignored, like the anti-Iraq war protests, or derided, like the Occupy movement -- even though they're usually much larger than things like Tea Party protests, which led the news everywhere. So I genuinely miss those days, when the prevailing political consensus was one of open-minded, progressive optimism. We thought we were changing the world, and for all of one generation, we did.

But there was also the downside; the permissiveness and general belief that everything our parents told us was a lie opened the door to such things as a broad willingness to experiment with drugs we shouldn't have. Cooke got that right, too.

That's my opinion, and I bring it up as one reason I like Silk Spectre. I think Darwyn Cooke got the vibe of the times right, and it's a vibe I don't see presented accurately in any other places, so I dug it. Believe me, I am NOT trying to start a political discussion. Just explaining one of the things that appealed to me about Silk Spectre. (Which might have the opposite effect on other people!)

Richard, I wasn't terribly impressed with Azzarello's Rorschach -- I thought it was a serviceable story, and a decent read, but you could have substituted O'Neil's The Question for Rorschach and not changed much, and that's one heck of a missed opportunity. Rorschach is a unique character with a unique history and sociopathy, which begs for a unique story that couldn't be told elsewhere.

However, his Comedian story was riveting, especially the ending, which I did not see coming. I thought I would dislike being dragged through a story with a slug like Comedian as the protagonist, but I found myself really intrigued, despite Azzarello making the character as vile -- more vile, really -- than Moore did. That's a heckuva trick.

As for Dr. Manhattan, yeah, the emphasis on quantum physics got boring sometimes, but I guess that's hard to avoid with a character like Dr. Manhattan. I thought the story was essentially JMS trying to explain why Manhattan didn't stop the villain in Watchmen, given that he essentially sees all time at once. I'm not sure that needed explaining; I thought Moore did a pretty good job of depicting a character who might know something bad (for humans) is coming, but no longer care. Plus, there was the "static" of the molecular disassembler cabinet, or whatever it was. But, OK, if anyone was wondering, here's a whole lot of pages explaining it in depth.


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