Archive for July, 2012

What a difference an issue makes.

As you may or may not recall, on our first trip through the Before Watchmen titles, I was kinder to the debut issue of writer Brian Azzarello and artist J.G. Jones’ Comedian mini-series than I was any of the others. Okay, fair enough, I said Jones drew things in kind of a standard superhero-ish way that was certainly competent but in no way distinctive, and that rather tame “criticism” still applies to this second issue, but I was generally pretty complimentary of Azzarello’s efforts to tell something more, or at least other, than a typical origin or “missing adventure” -type story, which is exactly what pretty much all the other writers involved in this increasingly-obvious cash-grab seem perfectly satisfied with doing. Azzarello (whose writing I found sufficiently impressive to spur me into picking up another one of his books — the hardcover Joker graphic novel he wrote, which sucked) seemed to have a clear story — with a definite, if predictable, character trajectory— in mind that he wanted to tell, wasn’t afraid to buck the trend of simply filling in character “blank spots” pointlessly as the other titles had been doing (and continue to do), and even left us a nifty little cliffhanger in regards to the whole JFK killing with some lingering questions about why the not-so-good Mr. Blake was purposely yanked away from Dallas on that fateful day.

Along comes issue number two (with two versions of the cover this time around, by Jones and Tim Bradstreet, as shown above, respectively), and things start off decently enough with The Comedian and RFK attending one of the greatest matches in boxing history as  then-Cassius Clay defeats Sonny Liston (with Bobby implying that the fight was fixed), but pretty soon we’re skipping ahead, Blake’s in Viet Nam, where four pages of a 20-page book are taken up with a lazily-written, nearly wordless (and pointless) battle scene, and after some machinations involving the setup of an illegal drug-smuggling operation run through Air America to finance the war (which as we all know really happened, and was repeated in Central America less than two decades later), it becomes obvious that all “Azz” is likely to do here — although I hope to still be proven wrong — is duck and dive into various parts of The Comedian’s life and show us some scenes that don’t really amount to much, and that we could have pretty well guessed at ourselves anyway, that will supposedly “provide a greater understanding” of how these characters came to be the way they were when Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons first introduced us to them back in 1986.

In other words, it’s a big, fat, four-dollar dose of “whatever.” As of right now, after a pretty promising start, the Comedian mini-series is firmly back in the  pack with the other  Before Watchmen titles, content to do the same job that’s already been achieved by the numerous  better-written and better-drawn flashback sequences in the original Watchmen series. My patience is running pretty thin at this point. The writers and artists involved in this project are getting one more issue each to show me that they intend to do anything beyond what they so obviously seem ready to settle for — competently-enough-executed, but completely uninspired (and even more importantly, uninspiring), totally useless, needlessly extended “Secret Origins of the Watchmen” crap. To use a very apt, if painfully obvious,  metaphor — the clock is ticking.


I don’t care who you are, what you do, where you’re at, where you’ve been, or where you’re going — reading the disarmingly confessional comics presented in Joe Matt’s fourth volume of work collected from his late (and lamented) Drawn & Quarterly-published solo series Peep Show, a volume fittingly titled Spent, will leave you feeling pretty damn good both about yourself and your lot in life.

Not because Matt is a master of “self-help” motivational pablum, mind you — just the opposite. In fact, I can pretty much guarantee that unless you’re living under a bridge and slowly, painfully, starving to death, your life is better than Matt’s was at the time he wrote and drew the material that eventually became this book. He lived in a shit rooming house, worked very little, had almost no money (and clung to what little he did have like a miser), saw almost nothing of his friends, was obsessing over a particularly nasty breakup with his ex-girlfriend, and his “hobbies” were collecting old Gasoline Alley comic strips, editing together the “best” scenes from various porn flicks into eight-and ten-hour VHS compilation tapes, and jerking off, quite literally, all the goddamn time (there’s a reason there’s toilet paper all over the floor on the cover).


See? You’re not such a loser after all, are you? All that being said, while Spent isn’t exactly an enjoyable book to work your way through, it’s definitely an engrossing one — in the same way, I suppose, that train wrecks are. And while it helps that Matt’s clean, cartoonish art style is very pleasing to the eye and that the author seems to be not only fully aware of, but  as downright repulsed by, his own numerous personal shortcomings as we are, make no mistake — this is a grim record of a guy who’s hit rock bottom and is too disinterested at this point to even lift himself back up. It’s a heady stew of depression, immaturity, egocentrism, and inertia, all wrapped up in a toxic bundle of self-loathing that’s enough to make Robert Crumb look like “Mr. Positive” in comparison, and when you consider that Matt’s best friends, legendary Canadian cartoonists Chester Brown and Seth, have actually said that he lets himself off pretty easy in his own work — well, the mind just plain boggles.

So, while it’s tempting to congratulate Matt for his fearlessness in airing out his own dirty laundry here, it’s also worth considering the very real possibility that he obsessively catalogues the mundanities of his own dead-end life for no other reason than that he’s simply so fucking lazy that he can’t be bothered to do the work  that would be required to write and draw about anything else! All of which might make it sound like I’m being pretty hard on the poor guy — unless and until you read this book and realize that, if anything, I’m being rather generous with my assessment here.


Autobiographical material has always been something that appeals to a very small “niche market” in comics readership, most of whom would rather read about guys wearing tights and beating each other up (and yet Matt is considered a loser? Figure that one out), but even folks who are into autobio work will by and large find our guy Joe’s stuff to be, at the very least, thematically off-putting. I admit that it’s phrasing things very kindly indeed to simply say that his work is an “acquired taste,” and the fact that, God help me, I enjoy this stuff probably says a lot of things about my own psychology that would bear close examination and analysis if I had the time, money, or guts to pursue them — but like it I do, and quite a bit, at that. Maybe it’s the juxtaposition of such solidly-rendered, highly-accessible art (and I find mixing  some greys and greens into the black-and-white mix, as D&Q have done in this handsome hardbound collection, really works even though it sure sounds like it shouldn’t) with such off-putting, inaccessible material that keeps me coming back to Matt’s work.  Maybe I’m looking for someone to feel superior to and just chose an easy target. Maybe I’m a glutton for punishment. Or maybe I just like looking at train wrecks. Whatever the case may be, I’m definitely a Joe Matt fan — but I’d feel uneasy about shaking his hand if I ever met the guy, knowing where it’s been.

Postscript : Matt has moved on with his life, thankfully. He headed for LA some years back to pursue a possible HBO production deal for a TV show based on his work, and while it ultimately came to nothing, he has managed (somehow) to find himself a girlfriend and do some much-needed growing up. I’m friends with him on facebook (full disclosure) and he actually seems to be settling into middle age quite comfortably, even if it means (sadly) leaving comics behind (at least for the time being) and moving into freelance commissioned painting and illustration work. Hey — maybe there really is hope for any of us.

They say the art of “good” criticism — be it film, literary, or what have you — is to never give away your opinion right off the bat. They also say that rules are made to be broken, and as I’m feeling a bit rebellious today, I’ll just come right out and say it — I’m not sure what the point of DC Comics’ new Batman : Earth One hardcover graphic novel really is.

I mean, I get that the whole Earth One line is supposed to be DC’s approximation of Marvel’s Ultimate “universe,” the goal of which is to prime the company’s economic gas pump by re-introducing familiar characters in new, “present-day” settings, thereby (theoretically) attracting new readers to Batman or whatever other franchise we might be talking about who would otherwise be frightened off — understandably so — by 50-plus years of continuity and backstory. But wasn’t that also, purportedly at least, the goal behind the entire “New 52” relaunch a few months back? I’ll grant you that the Earth One (and by the way, back in the ancient mists of time when I was actually young, “Earth One” was the “main” Earth on which all the DC “present-day” stories were happening, and “Earth Two” was where all the “old time” heroes of the Golden Age lived. There were any number of “multiple Earths,” and then DC imploded their whole “multiverse” in the Crisis On Infinite Earths mini-series and pared it all down to one single fictional “universe.” I understand that they brought the “multiverse” concept back a couple years ago in their Infinite Crisis book, but I guess the universe where the regular monthly DC books take place is not the “Earth One” universe, nor is it “Earth Two,” since there’s a specific DC title relating to that parallel reality. Maybe the “main universe” Earth is “Earth 3,” or “Earth Prime” or “Earth 27” — frankly, I have no idea) thing was already well into the pipeline by that point , but doesn’t that still make one or the other rather, you know — redundant? Besides, if one wants to jump into the Batman world fresh, there’s also been a fairly recent hardcover reissue of Frank Miller and David Mazzuchelli’s superb Batman : Year One, in a so-called “deluxe edition,” no less, that’s still readily available. All of which leads me to believe that readers looking for a good “jumping-on” point for the Batman comics would actually walk away more confused than ever about exactly where to begin once they see the plethora of supposedly “good places to start” that are out there.

At any rate, for what it’s worth, DC are certainly marketing this new book, written by current “hot property” writer Geoff Johns, pencilled by current “hot property” penciller Gary Frank, and inked by current “hot property” inker Jonathan Sibal as, at the very least, one of the really good places for newcomers to begin exploring the adventures of the Caped Crusader on the printed page.  But it’s not where I’d choose to start off.

Don’t get me wrong — the art is absolutely gorgeous, apart from Frank apparently deciding to model Bruce Wayne’s facial features upon Tom Cruise. Frank has a hyper-realistic, highly-detailed style that does lend an air of “reality” to the proceedings, and Sibal’s inks are meticulous and quite rich. Colorist Brad Anderson deserves a nod here, as well, for his spot-on-perfect-in-most-instances color palette that provides a lot of welcome variation but maintains, by and large, a properly somber feel throughout. The art may be a little stiff at times, particularly during the action sequences,  the panels of which feel as if they’re designed to be viewed individually rather than in any type of flowing sequential order, but it’s all so damn painstakingly defined and flawlessly rendered that it’s hard to quibble.

The problem here, then, is most certainly not the art — it’s the story. Simply put, Johns shoots his entire creative wad with the tinkering he does around the edges of the Batman “legend,” none of which makes a damn bit of difference in the end, and some of which, like the idea of the villainous Penguin as mayor of Gotham City, have already been tried elsewhere ( inTim Burton’s Batman Returns, in case you’d forgotten, which you probably hadn’t. Yeah, okay, he was only running for the office in that film, but still — the idea was out there). Apart from that, we’ve got is a series of what are supposedly “nifty little touches,” like making Alfred some type of ex-Marine/mercenary, Jim Gordon being a crooked cop, Harvey Bullock being a suave “reality” TV star, etc. that are shoehorned into a limp story about how Mayor Cobblepot is keeping a stranglehold on the city by employing a psychotic, ‘roided-out serial killer called — I kid you not — “The Birthday Boy,” to whom he happily sacrifices the daughters of the rich and powerful if they ever threaten to get out of line. Hey, it’s that’s one way to keep the big-money campaign contributors on your side, I guess. There’s also a bit of a conspiracy theory angle uncomfortably forced into the story of the murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents because the elder Wayne was running against Cobblepot for mayor, but don’t worry — it all comes to naught. As does the story itself, which just leaves us set up for a sequel at the end with a series of dangling plot threads littering the landscape, none of which are particularly interesting. If Johns had put half as much effort into constructing an involving piece of drama here as he did with tweaking the incidental details, then maybe the inevitable Earth One : Part Two would be something I’d be looking forward to, but as it is, I’m hardly holding my breath.

I guess it’s kinda cool, in a fan-geeky way, to see a book where Batman fucks up on the job a lot, wears combat boots, punches out (non-)Commissioner Gordon, and has a costume that actually shows his eyes, but if you’re not a hopeless devotee of Dark Knight minutiae, it’s hard to see how this thing could hold much appeal, apart from the gorgeously-rendered visuals. In short, Earth One is no Year One, and casual or completely “green” Batman readers would probably find Miller and Mazzuchelli’s seminal work a much more rewarding and, frankly, timeless take on the origins, motivations, and earliest exploits of everyone’s favorite masked billionaire vigilante.

Granted, this book is very nearly two years old, but I’m reviewing it now because a) I was concentrating solely on film reviews here at the time this came out, and b) the second part of the as-far-as-I-know untitled “magnum opus” by cartoonist extraordinaire Charles Burns this book marked the start of, The Hive, is coming out in a couple of months here, so it’s apropos, in my own humble view, to re-examine this introductory chapter as we whet our appetites for the the next one.

For those of you who may be largely unfamiliar with Burns’ work, suffice to say it’s really in a class by itself. His career spans all the way back to the early days of Art Spiegelman and Francoise Mouly’s legendary Raw, and while certain themes — adolescence and its attendant mysteries (both physical and mental), altered states of consciousness (often drug-induced), inexplicable and frequently grotesque biological phenomena, and a childlike sense of wonder at even (sometimes especially) the ugly side of life — run throughout his oeuvre, it’s probably fair to say that he’s grown both more obsessive about both exploring this stuff and detailing it meticulously via his superb illustrations as time has gone on. He’s been at it for a few decades now, and it still feels as though he’s just getting started.

Put it this way — if you could put Herge, William Burroughs, David Lynch and David Cronenberg into a blender, you might come up with something that approximates Burns’ singular worldview. Oh, and you’d have to throw some seriously potent acid into the mix, as well.

After finishing what many —myself included— considered to be his masterpiece , the sublimely alienated and warped Black Hole, it was an open question as to how he was going to “top himself,” so to speak, and his new series, presented Tintin-style in 56-page oversized hardbound volumes published by Pantheon Books, answers the question for us — he’s heading, as ever, into unexpected, even previously unimagined territory, all the while wearing his influences on his sleeve but striking out on a decidedly independent path (even though the cover itself is an open homage to the classic Tintin adventure The Shooting Star, and the interior artwork bears a closer resemblance to Herge’s style than ever before).

The story in X’ed Out at least seems  to revolve around a loser-ish late-teen character named Doug, who wakes up in a strange bedroom with no idea where he is or how he got there, and a hole in the wall of the room ends up leading him into an Interzone-type world-within-a-world that seems, for some reason, to revolve around the trade of giant spotted eggs. We’re given a series of flashbacks to Doug’s “normal” life as the tale unfolds, but to say we have any idea as this point where things are headed, either in terms of what happened in the past or what’s happening in the present would be premature. So far it’s one pleasingly absurd enigma after the next, and while I admit this may make tough going for a newcomer to Burns’ work — do yourself a favor and go with Big Baby or Black Hole first — for those of us who have learned to trust him implicitly over the years, it represents a very strong start to what’s certain (we hope) to be another groundbreaking, classification-eschewing lengthy work, and all presented in glorious, hand-done color, no less!

On the economic front, I’ll admit that twenty bucks (assuming you pay full price, which I don’t know if anyone does these days) for 56 pages is pretty steep, but this is one of those books where the first thing you’re gonna do when you’ve finished it is read it again, and you’ll find yourself flipping it open pretty often in the days, weeks, months, and yes, at this point even years, subsequently, and that each successive reread will reveal not just new details, but new ways to look at the whole thing (or what we have of it so far at any rate) . Right now I don’t know exactly what it is we’ve even got here, much less where’s it’s headed, but I do know that I like it. A lot.

Posted: July 22, 2012 in Uncategorized

More new stuff for Through The Shattered Lens —

Through the Shattered Lens

I know, I know — it’s really not even fair, is it? To review director Marc Webb’s probably-happening-to-quickly relaunch of Marvel’s Spider-Man franchise in the wake of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises seems like setting this flick up for defeat. Truth be told, though, I actually saw this flick on opening night, and held off on reviewing it here on Through The Shattered Lens because, well — everybody else was already having a crack at it on here. I swear. I think this is the fourth or fifth review of this film to go up here. So I held off. And honestly, the fact that I wasn’t rushing home to sit down and review it right away should tell you something right there, shouldn’t it?

Not that The Amazing Spider-Man isn’t a perfectly decent little superhero flick, it is. But that’s all  it is. I can’t find much fault…

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Posted: July 21, 2012 in Uncategorized

Darn proud of this piece I wrote for Through The Shattered Lens website. I think it’s the most cogent analysis of the film available online, even if I do say so myself.

Through the Shattered Lens

At this point, I wonder if it’s even possible to separate today’s tragic events in Aurora, Colorado from any discussion about The Dark Knight Rises and simply analyze the film based on its own merits. If so, it takes a harder heart than mine, so before we even get started here let me say that my heart goes out to all the victims of this completely senseless tragedy, as well as their families and friends. In the days to come we can analyze the motivations, the warning signs that may or may not have been missed, and debate the proper courses of policy action to take in the wake of this absolutely senseless tragedy, and that’s all well and good — we still, and hopefully always will, live in a free society where the open debate and discussion about how best to address any situation, even and perhaps especially…

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Okay, now we’re getting somewhere. While the first issue of Amanda Conner and Darwyn Cooke’s Before Watchmen : Silk Spectre miniseries had a bit more substance to it than the previous week’s Minutemen #1, it still felt more or less like all set-up material and not much else, and it’s only with this second installment that it feels like we’re really getting into the teeth of the story itself. Which isn’t the end of the world in and of itself, I suppose, but it does mean that by the time we actually have some sort of clear indication of where things are heading here, the series is already half over, given that it only runs for four issues, but I’m beginning to realize — not that I actually condone this, mind you — that cheating the customer as far as getting their actual money’s worth from a book goes is part and parcel of the modern mainstream comics industry. But I digress (as I’m so often wont to do).

Anyway, a teenage Laurie Juspeczyk, sick of her retired heroine mother’s meddling in her life, has run away from home with her high school boyfriend, Greg, and now they’re in San Francisco during what I assume to be the height of the Haight-Ashbury period, living with some friends, one of whom has the incredibly stupid name of “Chappy,” in a communal-type Victorian house. Laurie’s got a gig waiting tables, they’re all getting high a lot, and man, they’re just being, can you dig?

There’s a dark shadow falling over the Haight, though — a cat who goes by the handle of (speaking of stupid names) Gurustein (a black hippie with a Jewish-sounding name, way to prejudice the reader against three groups of people in one go!) has devised a plan, together with local mobsters, legendary acid chemist Owsley (who actually makes an appearance in the book) and “Merry Prankster” Ken Kesey (who does likewise) to get the kids hooked on a new type of hallucinogen that will turn them all on to the groovy vibes of mass consumerism now that the corporate world is taking a hit thanks to the “peace and love generation” figuring out that we don’t all need separate washing machines, refrigerators, stereos, TVs, or even clothes and records! Sharing, in other words, is a real bummer as far as “The Man” is concerned.

All of which, goofy as it sounds, has some basis in reality. Sort of. There’s ample evidence to suggest that LSD itself was introduced on a mass scale by our good friends at the CIA in order to de-radicalize and de-politicize the emerging youth culture of the late 1960s before it could actually present a threat en masse to the status quo (after all, you’re less likely to give a shit about all the various causes you’re wrapped up in while you’re spending half the day in la-la land), and — sorry if this bursts anyone’s bubble — there’s also pretty solidly-sourced material out there indicating that leading proponents of “LSD culture” such as Timothy Leary, Ken Kesey, and yes, even Owsley himself were, in fact, intelligence assets in one capacity or another.

Sure, this might all sound like it has nothing to do with a fictional “consumer drug” being developed, but it’s not as great a leap as it might first appear to be when you consider that the first few CIA directors were all former Wall Street men and that “The Company” has basically operated as a clandestine front to advance US business interests from its outset (and, yes, continues to do exactly that to this day). So things here aren’t nearly as far-fetched as they may seem, even if Cooke’s dialogue and characterization are, at times, painfully clumsy (he seems much more at home dealing with the ’40s than the ’60s).


Oh, and somewhere in the middle of all this Laurie has her first official “costume” made and goes out crime-fighting on her own for the first time, but that’s almost incidental, at least at this point, to the main thrust of the story here. Anyway, Conner’s art is, as I’m quickly coming to expect, gorgeous as always, it’s great to see her continuing to employ Dave Gibbons’ classic nine-panel grid while not being afraid to express her own style in her own manner, Paul Mount’s colors are flat-out superb, and both covers (as shown, respectively) — by Conner and Josh Middleton — wrap the whole package up in a pleasing form. Cooke’s scripting is still miles away from even attempting to  match Alan Moore in both form and execution, but this series is at least headed in an interesting direction, even if the going is a bit uneven and the gulf between the quality of the artwork and that of the story remains pretty wide.

So, now that we’re onto our first second issue (“first second”? That sounds inherent contradictory, but it’s not) of this whole Before Watchmen prequel-a-palooza, I have just one question (for now — I have a much bigger one that we’ll get to in due course) for writer-artist Darwyn Cooke and DC’s editorial “brain”trust : why didn’t you guys just start with this one first?

Seriously, this has all the makings of a fairly solid first issue — not a whole lot happens (still), but rather than a quick bit of pointless re-introduction to the characters individually (as if anybody reading this series wouldn’t already be familiar with all the principal players in the first place), this time around original Nite Owl Hollis Mason’s reminiscences take us back to the first-ever time the “mystery men” (and women) of days gone by functioned together as a group, a publicity-stunt fiasco of a “mission” that goes wrong, then plunges us, in fairly short order,  into what I assume will prove to be the meat of the story — a child abduction case first worked by the Silhouette, later joined by Mothman and our erstwhile narrator (for all the good they do), and soon, one would think, to involve the rest of the members of the team.

It’s still nothing spectacular by any stretch, but it’s an interesting enough little should-be-first-chapter that’s, unfortunately, seriously let down by a couple of questionable (to put it kindly) choices that Cooke makes at the end. If you don’t want things “spoiled” for you I suggest you stop reading right now (unless you just plain don’t give a damn, that is, in which case why are you even reading this at all ?), but if you’ve perused the contents of this book already, you probably share my absolute bewilderment at just what the fuck Cooke was thinking with those last few pages, to wit —

Our “heroes” enter a warehouse looking for a missing boy, while back at Minutemen HQ, that evening’s team meeting having broken up, Captain Metropolis coaxes Hooded Justice into hanging out for a little bit of lovin’ (there’s an off-“camera” exchange between the two where HJ tells Nelly to “silence your whining” that’s positively priceless) and gets considerably more than he bargained for when the burly fella ties him up to the bed and decides to show him how real closeted gay heroes go about this stuff.

Now, if the juxtaposition of gay sex, even (it could be argued) a decidedly less-than-consensual form of gay sex with child abduction weren’t offensive enough in and of itself, Cooke’s decision to throw in what for all intents and purposes appears to be a flashback to a circus scene in Germany where a child wanders off into some sort of nightmarish unpleasantness while we read a Robert Louis Stephenson nursery rhyme really muddies up the waters. When is this taking place? My initial supposition was that this was supposed to represent Hooded Justice as a kid, since there were vague intimations in Hollis Mason’s Under The Hood text pieces back in Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ original Watchmen series that HJ might have been a famous German strongman named, if memory serves me correctly, Rolf Muller, and the style of dress and other period trappings clearly suggest a late-1800s time frame, but the scene the kid stumbles upon, which I won’t give away specifically, is more like something right out of the Third Reich, which would suggest that it’s happening roughly contemporaneously with events in this series. To further complicate matters, the appearance of a hooded figure in the distance could either represent a shadowy, mysterious personage that the young Rolf turns to for help, an anonymous friend who proceeds to rescue him from the situation (immediately burning this sort of archetype into his consciousness as a representation of justice, even a savior that, as time goes by, morphs into an unattainable sexual ideal for which he longs and/or strives), or maybe, just maybe, that hooded figure is our guy HJ himself, and the lost kid is the one the other characters have been looking for and, at the conclusion of this segment, find — hanging from a noose in the warehouse they’ve been casing, while HJ’s “costume-noose,” if you will, dangles over Captain Metropolis’s head as he’s being — uhhmmm — ya know, mounted.

Frankly, it’s pretty hard to comprehend what the hell Cooke’s driving at here in Minutemen number two ( the story in question being contained within only two covers this time around — the “main one” being by Cooke and the alternate being by Jose Luis Garcia Lopez, shown here in the order I just mentioned ’em), but he’s playing with fire if he thinks drawing equivalancies between homosexuality, even sadomasochistic expressions of homosexuality, and child abduction and murder is, in any way, well — tolerable. The sad truth, even in this day and age, is that way too many people still assume gay men are child-predators, and guys who are into BDSM are probably viewed as being even more dangerous by Mr. and Mrs. Middle America. I’m probably the wrong person to be making this argument, being that sex with another man and sado-masochistic sex are nowhere to be found on my “bucket list” either together or separately, but it’s just a fact that gay folks, as well as folks into BDSM whether gay or straight, are just as harmless and “normal” as me or — I assume — you (whoever “you” might be). These people have to deal with enough prejudicial bullshit as it is, and this kind of thing doesn’t do anything to help matters at all. Quite the opposite, in fact.

Granted, you could make an argument that Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons were playing with similar fire with the whole Comedian-tries-to-rape-Silk-Spectre-and-years-later-she-has-consensual-sex-with-him-and-gives-birth-to-his-daughter thing, but that was Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. They knew what they were doing and how to handle that dynamite with care and precision. So far, Cooke has done nothing to earn our trust to the same degree, and it’s that same level of belief in an artist’s ability  that’s required to not close the cover on this book with an unpleasant taste in your mouth.

So, the ball is in Darwyn Cooke’s court now (not that it wasn’t from the beginning, but you know what I mean). He’s delivered solid period-piece style art for the last two issues, and this issue things at least got moving story-wise, but he’s left some heavy, uncomfortable question marks hanging in the air here, ones that might reveal some seriously retrograde attitudes about both gay people and people involved in the BDSM “lifestyle” — questions that are doubly offensive to people who are both homosexual and into a little bit of rough fun. He’s gotta thread a really fine needle right out of the gate in the next issue, and the first two installments give no indication whatsoever as to whether or not he’s up to the task. We’re either headed for a complex story that challenges preconceptions in regard to sexual “norms,” or we’re headed into a deep morass of homophobic, anti-“alternative”-sexual-practices nonsense. I enjoy the feeling of not knowing where an artist is going to go with his or her work next, but I’m afraid I might have an ugly inkling as to what Cooke’s got in store. I sincerely hope he proves me wrong.

For reasons that I’ll expound upon before this paragraph ends, the six-issue Ozymandias mini-series was the one Before Watchmen title apart from Darwyn Cooke’s Minutemen that people who were supportive of the whole enterprise would point to in order to say “hey, look, these books probably won’t be so bad.” I know Jae Lee is a fan-favorite artist, and writer Len Wein was the editor of the original Watchmen series as well as the guy who brought Alan Moore’s writing to America in the first place when he commissioned the Bearded One to take over the scripting chores on Swamp Thing, a character that Wein himself had co-created along with legendary horror artist Berni Wrightson. And then there’s the fact, of course, that Ozymandias himself is the most supposedly “cerebral” of the Watchmen characters, so having the imprimatur of these two established and well-respected creators on this series is, indeed, somewhat more impressive than leaving it in the hands of J. Michael Straczynski and, I dunno, Rob Liefeld or something. Yeah, it’s still not Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, but the thinking amongst the general comic-buying public apparently was something along the lines of “this is probably the best pairing they could come up with for this book apart from the original creators themselves.”

And hey, there’s certainly some truth to that. As far as these first issues go, this one wasn’t half bad. Lee’s art is rich, expressive, and even haunting in spots, evoking a classsical fairy-tale feel that’s as at home portraying the majestic and wondrous as it is the harrowing and frightful. Each individual panel (and Lee’s panel grids are both innovative and intelligent) is suitable for framing, especially complemented as they are by June Chung’s lush, digitally-“painted” colors. But therein lies the problem : this stuff has no sequential flow to it at all, and really would work better as a series of individual prints than displayed in a manner that’s supposed to blend seamlessly together — but doesn’t — on the  page. Each image is gorgeous to look at in its own right, but they’re all so stiff and devoid of movement or dynamism that it all feels more like looking at (and reading) a series of word-captioned gallery hangings than, you know, an actual comic book. Which is still what this is supposed to be, after all.

In addition, Lee doesn’t seem too concerned at all with backgrounds — most panels have more or less none at all — and his style doesn’t translate well into everyday situations. A scene where a young Adrian Veidt is being picked on by some bigger kids at school for his lunch money looks more like it’s taking place in the darkest recesses of an enchanted fucking forest than some suburban playground, and weird touches Lee throws in like having a map in Adrian’s classroom with China missing from it make no sense at all (I’ve seen some overly-obsessive fans speculating about whether or not this might mean that China has somehow been destroyed in the Watchmen “universe,” but I don’t buy it — Veidt is seen in Tibet just a few pages later, and that region/country isn’t on the map in question, either).

So yeah, it’s all damn near painfully pretty to look at, but it doesn’t exactly work when presented in this context, that context being — a pretty straight re-telling of Ozy’s origins as already related in Watchmen #11. Okay, a few new details are thrown in for good measure — like about Adrian having a boyfriend in Tibet and a girlfriend when he gets back to the US — but frankly his sexuality, like his hero Alexander the Great, was already pretty ambiguous to begin with, and all the other stuff presented here, such as his giving away of his inherited fortune, his travels around the world, etc. are all old hat. About the only thing revealed here that we didn’t already know is exactly why the so-called “Smartest Man In The World” decided to put on a mask and fight crime on his own when he could buy all the cops and private protection he wants and/or needs ten times over. The explanation Wein comes up with is, to his credit, pretty plausible, but it’s also kind of limp, all things considered. Just because something makes sense, in other words, doesn’t necessarily make it the best possible explanation.

In all fairness, though, Wein’s scripting is at least competent here, which means it’s got last week’s Nite Owl beat by a damn sight, but it’s certainly far from anything like inspired. It’s just a well-written re-hash of a comic that came out just over a quarter-century ago. Readable? Most definitely. But necessary? Most definitely not. And frankly, like Nite Owl, it’s pretty hard to see where this is all going apart from being an extended (in this case six-part) origin story. That might make for interesting enough reading, but really, weren’t we all hoping for something a little bit more — from all of these titles?

Finally, since this marks the last of the “first issues” of this whole Before Watchmen circus (at least until Rorschach and Dr. Manhattan make their way onto the scene in August), I thought I’d conclude this entry by finally talking, albeit briefly, about the other feature contained within the multiple covers of these books (in this instance said covers, as shown, being provided by Jae Lee, Phil Jimenez, and Jim Lee, respectively), namely the so-called “pirate story back-up feature,” Curse Of The Crimson Corsair, scripted by Wein and illustrated and colored by original Watchmen colorist John Higgins. Simply put, this kicks ass. I wasn’t too sure about where it was headed at first, and in two-page snippets, as presented, it still feels like pretty insubstantial stuff — but when read it’s consecutively, it becomes pretty clear that we’re witnessing the makings of a pretty solid little old-school supernatural adventure story here. Hardly groundbreaking stuff, but very well-written, and Higgins’ art is downright exceptional and perfectly suited to the material, as is the muted color palette he’s employing. It’s no reach at all to say that as far as some of these books go, this strip is the best thing about them, and I sincerely hope they’re all collected into a single-issue special/annual of some sort when all is said and done here.

First off, my apologies for the fact that things have been a bit quiet around these parts for the past couple of weeks. I offer no excuse other than the fact that things have been insanely busy at your humble host’s “real” job — which, as far as excuses go, is actually a pretty good one, especially since it also happens to be the truth. However, I’m pleased to report that things have, for the most part at any rate, settled back into their normal groove, and I intend to make up for lost time by reviewing a boatload of stuff here over the next couple of weeks.

Notice I said “stuff,” not “movies,” which brings me to my second point — I didn’t get all the comics I was hoping to do last month done, so we (okay,I) have elected to extend “comix month” here for another 30 days — even 60, if need be. Which doesn’t mean I won’t be reviewing films. I’ll still be doing a fair amount of that while comics continue their takeover here, I’ll just do it over at my other main online haunt, Through The Shattered Lens, and I’ll repost them here, as well, so you won’t miss a thing if you’re not following that site (even though you should be). Sound fair? Good.

And a last bit of business before we jump back into the swing of things here — and a very sad bit of business it is, at that. In case you hadn’t heard (and even if you had), it’s with a very heavy heart that I note the passing of Sage Stallone. More than just a garden-variety vacuous celebrity’s kid, Sage was one of the guiding forces behind Grindhouse Releasing, along with veteran film editor Bob Murawski. I sincerely doubt that there are any regular readers of this blog who don’t have one or two GR titles on their shelves, and while they were never the most prolific of companies, what they lacked in quantity they more than made up for in quality. think about it — whether it’s Cannibal HolocaustPiecesA Cat In The BrainI Drink Your Blood — Grindhouse releasing DVDs were always loaded with superb and relevant extras and were unparalleled in terms of their technical quality. Sage and Bob’s stuff was the gold standard in exploitation, period, and while I do regret that his passing means we’ll probably now never see the likes of Gone With The PopeAn American Hippie In IsraelDeadly Games,  S. F. Brownrigg’s Scum Of The Earth, or any of the other long-promised titles that GR owned the rights to ever come to pass, I’m extremely thankful for the masterful releases that Sage and Bob did manage to get out there, and all of us who are fans of exploitation cinema lost a friend when Sage passed away the other day at the far-too-young age of 36. Circumstances of his death are still unclear, and frankly don’t interest me in the least. We lost a passionate connoisseur of B (and lower) grade films who shared his passion with the rest of us through his work, and we’re all of us poorer for his departing. My thoughts go out to his family, friends, and loved ones, and even though he’s gone I just wanted to say “thanks, Sage” one more time.

Now. To the business at hand. I’ve fallen behind by a few weeks on my Before Watchmen reviews, but that’s all gonna change over the next few days, starting right here and now. I don’t know a whole lot about J. Michael Straczynksi, except for the fact that he was one of the creators (hell, maybe the only one for all I know) of the TV show Babylon 5, which I never watched. Apparently some time after that ended or got cancelled or whatever, he decided to come play big fish in a small pond by, to paraphrase LeBron James, “taking his talents” to the world of comics writing. Evidently some of his stuff has been very well-received and some of it  — uhhhmmm — considerably less so, and that rather unsteady track record, combined with a reputedly oversized ego, has led him to become something of a divisive figure in the industry.

Well, there’s no need for any divisiveness when it comes to his work on the Nite Owl portion of this whole Watchmen prequel “saga” — it sucks, plain and simple. Honestly, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons should actively look at suing the guy for misuse of intellectual property, except I don’t think there’s any such thing. The first issue of this book is everything those of us who had qualms about this project feared, and more.

But before I go any further down that road, I want to say for the record that none of what’s wrong with this book is the fault of the artists, namely Andy Kubert (pencils) and his legendary father, Joe (inks). The art on this first issue is flat-out great, and the heavy linework and thick, almost syrupy (in a good way) look to everything has me actively wondering how much Andy did at all. Maybe he just did rough breakdown and the old man took it from there, because this stuff looks like pure, unfiltered Joe all the way, and to my mind that’s always a good thing.  The comic itself may be unreadable, but it sure is a pleasure to look at.

But sheesh, enough with the compliments. The story here’s a complete mess. Dan Dreiberg’s nite Owl character is the only one that didn’t get a dedicated “origin issue” back in the original Watchmen series, and they should have taken that as a sign. There’s just not much of a compelling tale to be told here. We see young Daniel, who we knew came from a well-to-do background, survive an abusive upbringing — the kind where his old man beats the shit out of his mom right in front of the kid — and emerge apparently not all that bitter about it all, we see him track down the original Nite Owl, Hollis Mason, and essentially blackmail him into becoming his junior partner, we see Mason pretty quickly take a shine to the whole idea and retire ASAP to hand full reins over to the kid, we see Nite Owl go into action during the New York police strike, we see him team up with a terribly written Rorschach (in the original miniseries he was still shown as being pretty lucid at this point, but Straczynski has him “hurm”ing and dropping the articles off the front of words from the outset — I’m all for contradicting established continuity (see my review of Comedian #1) if it actually achieves something, but to have it happen as the end result of a writer just being too fucking lazy to reread the scenes that he’s structured his entire book around is just plain inexcusable — and I gotta ask, where were the editors when the script was submitted in this shape?), we see the two of them go to the first-and-last ever “Crimebusters” meeting, where Dan has a needless and frankly cheapening-to-the-original series “premonition” about a future with Laurie Juspeczyk that I guess Straczynski thinks will reek of profundity rather than desperation, the meeting ends, and that’s it.

If you’re searching for a point to Before Watchmen : Nite Owl #1 (with — yawn! — three variant covers, as shown above, by the Kuberts, Kevin Nowlan, and Jim Lee, respectively), and feel silly for not having found one, rest assured — there is none. Apart from a neat little three-panel sequence where the heroes at the “Crimebusters” meeting are drawing names out of a hat to see who they’re partnered up with and Dr. Manhattan manipulates the molecules on the slip of paper Captain Metropolis is holding to ensure that he’s paired with Silk Spectre rather than Rorschach, this is a story that has absolutely nothing to recommend in it. to call it “pointless” is being too kind, really — it strings a few needless new details over a framework composed of scenes we’ve seen done both a)before and b)much better. The story seems to have no actual trajectory of its own and what we’re apparently headed for here is just a by-the-numbers overview of Dan Dreiberg’s time in costume. Even if you’re one of the folks who thinks there’s nothing morally or ethically reprehensible about the whole idea of opening up the Watchmen “universe” to other creators, based on the evidence of this book alone — a literal dead end from the outset — you’d have to concede that the critics who have been trashing the project since the moment it was announced probably have a point. This is the Seinfeld of comics — 25 pages about nothing, going nowhere, with absolutely no purpose whatsoever.