So, this is it. Way back when all of the various Before Watchmen miniseries were first announced, it was Brian Azzarello and Lee Bermejo’s four-issue Rorschach book had even the most die-hard opponents of this project in general grudgingly saying “well, maybe that one won’t be so bad,” even if they were quick to follow up such admittedly guarded “praise” with ” — but I still won’t buy the fucking thing.” And when it comes to the folks who were downright enthusiastic about the prospect of non-Alan Moore, non-Dave Gibbons Watchmen work, well heck, this sounded like a dream come true. Azzarello has a reputation for being “Mr. dark n’ Gritty” in comics writing circles, and Bermejo has a reputation for being — well — “Mr. Dark n’ Gritty” in comics art circles, so what could possibly go wrong, right?
Then Bermejo’s flat-out awesome cover (as shown above, with variants by Jim Steranko — and holy shit if that one’s not the coolest of the bunch — and Jim Lee, respectively, to follow here shortly) became one of the first publicity images associated with the whole BW project and, frankly, even I was prepared to be impressed by this one (mind you, this was before I had read Azzarello and Bermejo’s completely useless hardcover Joker graphic novel, which for reasons I can’t fathom a lot of people seem to positively adore as, apparently, an example of “modern noir done right”). So at the end of the day we’ve got arguably the most popular character in the so-called “Watchmen universe” being written and drawn by the two people most qualified to deliver exactly the kind of story fans would want here, and this, then, is the point at which I’m supposed to ask “what could possibly go wrong,” right?
—and then I’m supposed to follow that rhetorical question up telling you what, in fact, does go very wrong with the whole thing, at least if we’re keeping to the form established by Before Watchmen in general up to this point. Here’s the thing, though — nothing really does go wrong here, and this ain’t a half-bad book at all. Admittedly, it’s lightweight and a damn quick read, but given the pure-set-up nature of all the BW first issues, this stands out, easily, as the best of the bunch. No “origin recap” bullshit. No repetition of stuff Moore and Gibbons did before, only better. No fanfic “didja ever wonder how Rorschach picked out his overcoat in the first place — and how he drops it off at the dry cleaner without arousing suspicion?” nonsense. Azzarello and Bermejo just deliver good, solid, (extremely) light-on-the-dialogue urban crime fiction in comics form.
Granted, there’s absolutely nothing here that could be considered in any way, shape, or form to be inspired work — it’s 1977 and we’re introduced to the handiwork of a serial killer the press has dubbed “The Bard” due to his penchant for carving pithy phrases into the flesh of his (invariably female) victims; meanwhile, Rorschach is working on busting up a Times Square heroin ring and gets set up for a massive ass-kicking that he barely survives; the bad guys, led by a Black Mask-type disfigured crimelord, assume he’s dead, and , well — that’s it. End of part one.
Hmmm —- put that way, I guess it doesn’t sound like much, and hell, maybe it really isn’t, but Bermejo’s art, which didn’t impress me much at all (to put it kindly) in Joker really does capture the feel and aura of “The Deuce” in its most decayed and decadent period (around this here blog we like to call this “The Golden Age”), and Azzarello’s script, while essentially pretty obviously lazy, still at least portrays the character of Rorschach correctly (are you taking notes, J. Michael Straczynski? Because you damn well should be), while his —- uhhhmmm —- economic use of dialogue and sound effects actually suits the type of story being told here just fine. In short, I ought to be a whole lot less happy about spending four bucks on a book that takes about five minutes to read and where not a whole lot actually happens than I am, but I can’t help it — Azzarello and Bermejo have delivered an entirely satisfying, if fairly un-ambitious, first issue here. I’m genuinely curious to see how the whole “Bard” thing works its way into Rorschach’s apparently-unrelated, smaller-time case, and look forward to Azzarello and Bermejo dunking our collective head into the societal toilet for three more issues.
Certainly, this is far from greatness. Any given page in the original Watchmen series contains more ideas than this entire issue does. And yeah, there’s no reason that an apparently-straightforward piece of “period” crime drama like this couldn’t be told with some non-Watchmen character, or even an entirely new Masked Avenger-type of Azzarello and Bermejo’s own creation. But given some of the dreck we’ve been subjected to under the Before Watchmen banner up to this point, I have to admit, Rorschach #1 stands out as the best book of the bunch so far — and by a fairly wide margin, at that.