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.