BEFORE WATCHMEN: First Thoughts on the WATCHMEN Prequel

     May 20, 2012


Is it possible (and/or right) to continue Watchmen without Alan Moore?  The question is so oft posed and the resulting criticisms so well documented, it almost feels tiresome to repeat.  Art vs. commerce and yadda, yadda, yadda… I have nothing new to add to the ol’ Moore vs. DC debate.  I love Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s Watchmen.  On general reflex, I considered a prequel without their involvement at best foolhardy.  But also understand that from a market standpoint, Watchmen prequels are good business and an inevitability with or without the creators.  And so here we are with Before Watchmen – a prequel nobody really asked for, but one everyone still wants to read regardless (myself included).

This past week, I was invited to DC headquarters to sample the initial issues from the seven runs of Before Watchmen (each run focusing on an individual character or group: e.g. The Comedian, Rorschach, Nite Owl, Ozymandias, Silk Spectre, Dr. Manhattan and Minutemen).  I’ve been sworn to secrecy on plot points and narrative spoilers, but allowed to share general thoughts (I think) on whether or not you should pre-hate this comic you’re probably still going to buy anyways.  For more thoughts (some of which surprised myself), hit the jump.

before-watchmen-dr-manhattanBefore Watchmen is good. Let’s get that out of the way up front.  Brian Azzarello, Darwyn Cooke and J. Michael Straczynski (among many others) have done a more than worthy approximation of Moore’s magnum opus.  But therein lies the problem.  So beholden to the original text it’s impossible to separate these new iterations from that which begat them. And in any comparison to Moore’s original – they’re going to come up lacking, either by being second out of the gate or from prejudices of the reader.

I look at the new edition Rorschach and think – ‘Azzarello’s really nailed Moore’s tone and voice.  Hell – this is a pretty damn good imitation of Rorschach.’  But that’s all it is: an imitation. It talks the same, acts the same, looks the same – but it’s not Moore’s Rorschach.  Just a copy.  And I can’t shake the feeling that Moore’s already told this story and this character in the best manner possible; so any emulation just seems repetitive no matter how good.  Are these biases fair?  I would argue that a majority of these new editions are so entrenched to the original and Moore’s vision of the characters that comparisons are unavoidable.  The prequels actively invite such thought. Before Watchmen is of one with Watchmen – and as such it will always live in its shadow for better or for worse.

The best of the comics takes a different stance or tweaks Moore’s beloved characters.  Ironically enough, Azzarello’s other contribution to the series, The Comedian, differs most from its origin, presenting a more stoic and dare-I-say naïve version of the character.  Watching The Comedian slowly shift to the hardened and disillusioned version of Moore’s becomes surprisingly poignant and sad.  The Comedian edition also seems the most entrenched in the real world politics of the 1960s.  There is a certain check-mark quality to having the Comedian interact with [Famous 1960s Political Figure A] or [1960s Movie Star B] or [1960s Heavyweight Champion C] – but the interactions also ground the comic in the past and helps to separate it from it’s predecessor’s 1980’s Cold War hysteria.

before-watchmen-rorschachSimilarly Darwyn Cooke and Amanda Conner’s Silk Spectre edition (and to a lesser extent Len Wein’s Ozymandias) deviate from their original counterparts.  Silk Spectre focusing on the young adolescent years of the character as she comes of age; Ozymandias – on the inherent difficulties of being a “boy wonder” when you’re, well, a boy.  Conversely – Rorschach, Nite Owl and Dr. Manhattan – all, at first glance, present exact replicas of the themes and characteristics of Moore’s version.  As such, they fail to stand out as their own individual creations.

Darwyn Cooke’s Minutemen (which has been a favorite among many of the other early reviews) holds promise – but the one issue I read was mostly set up – it could become the best run of the bunch or the worst.  Hard to quite get a feel for where the series is headed. And much of the thematic issues at play (the monetization of heroics, anti-corporate satire) feel lifted directly from the source.

The best aspect of the prequels, without question, is the artwork. J.G. Jones, Lee Bermejo, Darwyn Cooke, Amanda Conner, Jae Lee, Adam Hughes and Andy & Joe Kubert all do exceptional work that doesn’t feel beholden to Gibbon’s original work but at the same time is of one with Watchmen.  Having different artists on each series gives the comics their own unique style and identity, whether it be the gritty dark palette of Bermejo’s Rorschach or the bright playful colors of Conner’s Silk Spectre.  A special mention must be given to Jae Lee’s Ozymandias – whose artwork seems directly transported from the Renaissance reflecting its anti-hero’s own infatuation with the Classics and Humanist beliefs.

Rereading this review, it strikes me as much more negative than I had originally intended.  To reiterate – Before Watchmen is good. But is ‘good’ enough?  I still remain skeptical as to the validity of these comics or whether a prequel is or was ever a good idea in the first place (other than making a lot of money for DC) – but I do know that regardless, I’ll continue to read and finish out this new series… And I’m still not quite sure how I feel about that.

The first of Before Watchmen: Minutemen #1 hits stands June 6th.


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