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.
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