This past Wednesday, I went into a comics shop and bought new comics off the shelf for the first time in two and a half years. The pain I felt when I forked over $17 for four comics reminded me why.
The 2008 financial cock-up made a mess of things for many people, and my wife and I were no exception. I had to make some tough decisions. Cutting out new comics was a no-brainer. And it was painless. My interest in superheroes had waned over the interminable DC re-invention through multiple Crises, and no other “alternative” comics had caught my attention at the time.
I continued to buy trade paperback collections on occasion, at Dragon*Con or used from comics shops or with trade credit at McKay’s. When I got a tablet several months ago, I experimented a bit with e-comics. But as has happened several times in the past, my enthusiasm for comics has waned for the last few years. I can’t say that I’m regaining that enthusiasm, but I have read several good comics lately.
The first four Before Watchmen issues do not fall into that category.
While reading them, I wondered if I was being too harsh on them since these are only the first issues of 4-6 issue series. Any judgment of them is like judging the first chapter of a book. I don’t know what brilliant thematic resonance may be waiting for me in the entire arc.
To be “fair”, I went back and re-read the first issue of Watchmen. It would be more fair if I could somehow blank my foreknowledge of the rest of the series from my head, but the technology doesn’t exist. And no thanks.
In the first page, we have Rorshach’s brilliantly deranged journal (which sounds disturbingly like right wing radio jocks of the Naughties). The first three panels have writing that is so captivating that it was used for the movie trailers: “…all the whores and politicians will look up and shout “Save us!” …and I’ll look down and whisper “No.””
Minutemen, the title chosen to launch Before Watchmen, begins with an excerpt from the Epilogue of Hollis Mason’s Under the Hood, and then lampshades how bad the writing is by having him say to his dog, “This is terrible. I’ll just have to face facts, girl. I’m no Tolstoy. Going for a deep, philosophical ending isn’t going to work. I guess we’ll just have to stick to being ourselves, huh? What say we start unpacking some of our stuff?” Project much, Darwyn Cooke? *
Silk Spectre gets off to a slightly better start, and if the Watchmen label weren’t on the front, I’d probably be generous. But the snow globe on the first page–how does the husband/king get pulled out of the castle before Laurie drops it? Again, the writing is pretty bland, including such gems as the generic platitude that “Kids are smarter than we think.” This is not tight scripting. It’s all very loose. I may sound like a broken record since I’m going to keep repeating this, but: This level of writing could be forgiven in most any other comic (even one with a $3.99 cover price), but these creators had the ginormous balls to put fucking “Watchmen” on the cover of their crap.
Silk Spectre does have one of the best lines of these four books in its first three pages: the original Silk Spectre says to her daughter: “Oh Sweetie, you’re too young to hate. Wait until you’re older and the world gives you a good reason. Trust me, it won’t let you down.”
Comedian opens with Edward Blake sitting on a bedside listening to “The Wanderer” on the radio, then cuts to him playing football with the Kennedy’s. Not comparable to him being throw out a window, but the slow open is a valid choice, too. Eddie’s reference to “taking out the President” seems like it could be foreshadowing, but it turns out to be a dialogue red herring.
Eddie being best buds with the Kennedy’s seems a bit out of character for the hard-ass that we’re familiar with from the original series. But he does break down over the death of JFK at the end of the book (a tough guy break down–takes a swig of whiskey and squeezes the shoulder of another guy), so perhaps the thematic implication is that the Comedian was turned into a monster when the dream of Camelot died. If so, it’s pretty sloppy–after all, he kills Marilyn Monroe for Jackie-O and from the original, we know that he raped Sally Jupiter when he was in the Minutemen.
Nite Owl probably has the best opening. Kind of cliched dialogue from the father about Dan Dreiberg dreaming too much and not having a job, but when Danny opens his bedroom and we have a long shot of the room with his Nite Owl memorabilia, it’s a very Watchmen framing device.
Ultimately, that’s what’s missing from Before Watchmen: a connection to the original series. When I was wondering a couple of months ago whether this series should even exist, I suggested that a new Watchmen should be audacious rather than reverential. I couldn’t have imagined that we would get one that was neither. The art, the panel layouts are very typical for modern superhero comics, not matching the unusually geometric 9 panel framework that Watchmen established. The writing is very loose and mostly conversational, no match for the very tightly written original… so carefully written that Rorschach’s grunt is “Hurm,” a reference to the developer of the Rorschach test. (Which the character uses three times in one page of the Nite Owl book, as compared with only three times total in the first issue of Watchmen.)
I recently read the first book of Bendis’ Powers, which I enjoyed quite a bit. There are now a lot of books like it. J. Michael Straczynski, writer of Nite Owl and Dr. Manhattan, has even written a couple himself, the less than stellar Rising Stars and the excellent Supreme Power (the first series of which is probably my favorite of the revisionist superhero genre after Watchmen). This isn’t like the 80’s, when very few comics had ever broached the topic of realistic superheroes in such a gritty way. Now most superhero comics attempt to inject a sense of realism into their fantasy, and many many of them have put their heroes through the grimdark wringer.
So what is Before Watchmen bringing to the table?
As best I can tell from these first four issues, nothing much. Like a man watching a car wreck, I’m morbidly curious to see what else can go wrong with these bastard children. But $17 was enough to pay for turds, no matter how well polished they were.
* I wrote this before checking what the rest of the interwebs response to Before Watchmen was. I was surprised to see that it has been mostly positive. This interview with Darwyn Cooke makes me a little more forgiving of his self-deprecating Minutemen opening. Though I doubt I will put myself through the expense or emotional turmoil of reading the rest of the series, I will keep an eye on the reviews.