Comix Month, Take III : “Before Watchmen : Dr. Manhattan” #1

Posted: August 25, 2012 in comics
Tags: , , , , ,

Well, whaddaya know — I certainly didn’t see this coming.

Oh, don’t get me wrong — I saw the first 21 pages of this 23-page comic coming from a mile away. As the last of the Before Watchmen titles to debut, J. Michael Straczynski and Adam Hughes’ Dr. Manhattan four-parter probably had the lowest set of collective fan expectations surrounding it of any of these books. After all, Hughes is best known as, essentially, a “cheesecake,” pin-up style artist (his hyper-sexualized cover for issue one, as shown above, being entirely par for his course — alternate covers, by the way, as will be posted here in a minute, are by Paul Pope and Jim Lee, respectively), and Straczynski is busy making a mess of things over in the Nite Owl series, so hey, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons probably weren’t losing too much sleep about the prospect of these two guys surpassing their Watchmen work.

Which, of course, they don’t. Not even close. And like I said, the first 21 pages here are pretty much Straczynski doing what he does in Nite Owl — the lead character is just standing around reminiscing about various chapters in his past, many of which we’ve already seen (including the first disastrous Crimebusters meeting that was already shown for the second time in Nite Owl #1 and gets replayed yet fucking again here), for pretty much no reason whatsoever. To his credit, “JMS,” as he’s apparently known in comics cirlces, at least gets the tone of Jon Osterman/Dr. Manhattan’s characterization right, which is more than you can say for what he’s doing with Rorschach in that other book, but nevertheless, this series essentially starts life as,  more or less, Watchmen #4 all over again — only not nearly as good.

As for the art, Hughes is a perfectly competent and capable draftsman, and he probably draws Dr. Manhattan in “blue form” better than anybody this side of Dave Gibbons, but he’s still, crucially, not Dave Gibbons, quite obviously, and the heavy reliance of the script on images directly out of the original Watchmen series makes such comparisons between the two artists more or less inevitable — comparisons that Hughes is going to come up on the short end of every single time.

The other annoying thing that Straczynski ports over into this work directly from Nite Owl is his wretched use of foreshadowing to demystify aspects of Moore and Gibbons’ original work. Just as he’s given us the “origins’ we never cared about of Rorschach’s “The End Is Nigh” sign and Nite Owl’s fixation with chicks in costume, here we learn that the cool clockwork-ship Dr. Manhattan either creates from thin air (as some have theorized) or finds buried under the sand (as I’ve always maintained) on Mars is, in fact, unambiguously a work of the Big Blue Naked Guy’s own creation, based on a fancy clock his dad gave him as a birthday gift when he was a kid. So there’s that cool, unexplained, open-to-interpretation event from the original wrecked forever, then.

And hey,  now that we’ve hit the point where it sounds like I’m more or less completely down on this work, let’s get back to that “hey, didn’t see this coming!” that I opened things with here, shall we? Because really, I didn’t see this coming — the “this” in question being this issue’s amazing, awesome, mind-blowing, genuinely surprising “cliffhanger”-style ending.

An ending that, asshole that I am, I will now remain completely silent about. Because seriously — you’ve gotta read this book. I mentioned that Straczynski pretty much nails his characterization of Osterman/Dr. Manhattan here, and that includes his “quantum perception” (or whatever we want to call it) of time. Moore did it better, sure, but “JMS” does it well enough. And that’s key here because when, in the midst of his unforced, apparently entirely self-indulgent, idyllic reverie, “Big Blue” decides, on a wild hair, to go back to the moment of his own creation and watch himself be “born” again, it feels like a “natural” enough thing for him to do. You can do or see anything you want at any time since it’s all happening simultaneously anyway, right? Okay, fair enough, for reasons unknown he encounters a brief “blip” of resistance for what you or I would perceive to be a “moment,” but then, presto! He’s in! He’s back at the lab! He’s going into the intrinsic field generator to get his coat! And then —

Everything we know, or thought we knew, about the birth/creation of Dr. Manhattan changes in an instant, right there, on  the last two pages of this hitherto-wholly-unremarkable book. And I’m cheering and fist-pumping-the-air at the ending of a comic book in a way that I haven’t done since, hell, I don’t know when. And while I’m still apprehensive, based on his track record to date, that Straczynski could, and maybe inevitably will, find a way to fuck this whole thing up, the fact is that he’s given us an ending for the ages here, and the first genuine “shocker” moment in any of these BW  titles. It could all end in disappointment, sure, but for now, well — I’m something I had recently resigned myself to feeling I never would be when it came to anything to do with any of this Before Watchmen stuff : genuinely, eagerly, can’t-wait-see-what-happens-next excited. Bring on the second issue now, already!

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