Posts Tagged ‘before watchmen’

 

I did, in fact, warn you all — I said at the outset of “Comix Month Take II” that I might do a third,  and so it’s come to pass. This is gonna be it, though, I promise — apart from keeping up with all the various Before Watchmen books, which I’ll continue to write about for as long as I’m buying ’em. September will be business as usual apart from that, though, as we go back to the grindhouse in a big way. And as last month proved, I haven’t neglected film reviews entirely — I still did a few for Through The Shattered Lens and duly linked to them on here, as promised/threatened. The same will go for this month, and in fact I’ll “tease” that a bit by saying this much in advance — I’m working on a series of interconnected posts (yes, movie-related) based around a single theme for TTSL, and hope to have the first one up in the next handful of days. I’ll say no more for the time being apart from this — comics fans should (I hope) find them interesting, as well.

All of which brings me back to the business at hand, which is of course taking a look at the second issue of Before Watchmen : Nite Owl, and I do so with a very heavy heart, indeed, because as it turns out this was the last comic featuring art by the now late, great Joe Kubert to see publication while he was still among us. Mr. Kubert passed away at the age of 85 the other day, and to call him a giant is an understatement indeed. While DC’s horribly shoddy initial press release mentioned only his Before Watchmen work, anyone who knows anything about comics knows better. Kubert was the premier war comics illustrator of all time, the premier jungle adventure comics illustrator of all time, one of the two or three premier superhero and sci-fi comics illustrators of all time, and frankly right up there in the pantheon with names like Kirby, Wood, Eisner, Hogarth, Foster, Ditko, etc. when we comics fans are discussing the always-debated subject of “who was the greatest American comics artist ever, period.” His contributions to this medium can never, I repeat never, be adequately or accurately measured, and he will be sorely missed by hundreds of thousands, even millions, of fans in addition to friends, family, and the legion of comics talent he trained at his Kubert School, the institution that gave us the likes of Steve Bissette, Rick Veitch, and John Totleben, to name just a few illustrious alumni.

Rest in peace, Mr. Kubert, and know that history will judge you very kindly indeed.

And while we’re talking of Joe Kubert, I mentioned last time around the block with Nite Owl #1 that I honestly wondered how much of the art in this series was down to his son Andy, who’s credited as being the book’s penciller, at all, and this second issue does nothing to quell that curiosity. The classic Kubert mastery of layouts is on full display here, as is the rich, heavy linework in the inks/finishes. My best guess —and mind you it’s only a guess — is that Joe was responsible for the layouts on this book, Andy did some rough pencils, and Joe did finished pencils as well as inks. We’ll probably never know, of course, but that’s sure what it looks like to me.

All of which is to say that the art in this book is top-notch. While fandom in its assembled “wisdom” seems to be crowning Ozymandias artist Jae Lee as the king of the Before Watchmen art universe, I say it’s Joe K. all the way — and it’s not even a close contest. Just look at that cover (the main one up top, not the secondary one by David Finch underneath it, although that ain’t bad, either) and tell me that’s not the finest Watchmen-related illustration not done by Dave Gibbons you’ve ever seen.

Unfortunately, however, we’re still waiting for the first great Watchmen-related script not written by Alan Moore. J. Michael Straczynski does a heck of a lot better job this time around than he did in the go-nowhere, do-nothing first issue, and this secondary installment at least moves the plot forward a bit (it’s apparently going to center on Nite Owl/Dan Dreiberg’s developing costume fetish as he gets involved with a masked “villainess” called Lady Nightshade, and juxtapose that with Rorschach(who’s really a full-fledged co-star here)’s slow-burn mental breakdown), but Straczynski is still writing Rorschach all wrong given the time period, he’s apparently never even heard of the concept of subtlety, and a couple of scenes (where Rorschach yells “whore!” at Lady Nightshade while attempting to attack her and teenage Dan, in a flashback scene, asks his mother whether it was her or his abusive old man who wanted to abort him before he was born when he learns one of ’em did) are somewhere between cringeworthy and laugh-out-loud bad.

Still, there’s some hope. An extended sequence detailing how Dan first used a mask to deflect away the painful reality of bullying and ass-kicking while growing-up is melodramatic, to be sure, but it’s also handled with a fair amount of sensitivity and realism, and a sequence with Nite Owl the first, Hollis Mason, hinting at some darker reason as to why the Minutemen broke up is both genuinely intriguing and, thankfully, not overplayed (even if I have a pretty solid guess as to what happened based on a single panel alone). It’s far from a great script, no question, but it’s certainly miles ahead of anything I was expecting/dreading after that flat-out abysmal first issue.

Still, of all the books to serve as a capstone to one of the undeniably greatest and most influential careers in the history of this medium, it’s a shame that it’s gotta be this one. Before Watchmen : Nite Owl #2 is head and shoulders above the first issue, but it’s still nowhere near even the top, oh, 500 single issues in Joe Kubert’s illustrious oeuvre, and reading it again the other night, the thought foremost in my mind ,as it was after the first issue, is still “this would have been so much better if Joe had written it himself.” It’s too bad that it’s too late for that now, but I look forward to the final two issues of this miniseries, assuming they’re already “in the can,” so to speak, not for anything Straczynski has done/is doing — his scripting is so wildly uneven that I don’t have the first clue what the quality of next issue’s story is going to be like — but because, unless there’s some mystery project buried somewhere in the “industry pipeline” that we don’t know about — they will, in all likelihood, mark Joe Kubert’s last comics work ever. And if you’re looking for the single saddest sentence I’ve ever had to type out, that one’s right up there near the top.

 

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.

Finally! I guess the third time’s the charm, because Before Watchmen : Comedian #1 finally shows that DC is capable of delivering on the “promise” — limited as it is from the outset — that I thought this whole Watchmen prequel project might have going for it (and I use that term with caution, since the idea that these to-my-mind completely unnecessary books have anything much “going for them” at all is highly debatable, to say the least) : namely, that while they probably in any just universe not ruled by the forces of predatory capitalism wouldn’t even exist in the first place, but since we live in this rather soulless and benighted one, the best we can hope for is some decent storytelling that has something interesting to say about some admittedly quite compelling characters.

To be sure, writer Brian Azzzarello and artist J.G. Jones aren’t adding anything extra to the figure of Eddie Blake, aka The Comedian, that we absolutely need to know, but it seems like they are, at least, interested in providing a fresh take on him that seeks to do a little bit more than just recount some story from his past that’s either complete retread material (a la Darwyn Cooke’s Minutemen) or simply the exact kind situation we could easily envision these one of these characters in ourselves, no problem (Cooke and Amanda Conner’s Silk Spectre).There’s no doubt that at his core, the Comedian as scripted by Azzarello and drawn by Jones (brief aside — my biggest gripe with this issue is, in fact, Jones’ artwork — it’s not actively bad, by any means, but it’s just standard, garden-variety superhero-type stuff that’s frankly the very essence of the term “nothing special”) is in no way fundamentally different than the character we were introduced by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons in the original Watchmen mini-series, but this story does, dare I say it, almost show something of a softer side to the guy. He’s still a rat bastard at heart, as shown by how he rather casually murders a famous woman he was only just sleeping with (I won’t say who, but if I tell you that the story is set in the early ’60s, you can probably guess), but he’s also shown here to be very nearly developing something of, dare I say it, an idealistic streak. He actually seems to believe in something — or, more specifically, in someone (again, I won’t say who, but again, given the time period in which this story takes place, you can pretty easily guess). He is, in fact, supposed to be on his way to meet that someone when he’s detained by an obviously hastily-arranged little time-waster of a “mission,” and while he’s tending to that pesky n’ pointless matter, that certain less-than-mysterious someone whose name I’ve studiously avoided mentioning is killed (and let’s face it — if you still haven’t figured out who I’m talking about by this point, there’s absolutely no hope for you).

And that’s probably where things are going to get dicey for a lot of Watchmen purists (what are you doing even reading this book in the first place?), because it directly contradicts something that was hinted at in the original series and that was explicitly shown in Zack Snyder’s film. However, it’s quite apparent that solving this “whodunnit?,” as well as its attendant question of “why was The Comedian kept away from it?” is going to be the driving force behind the plot of this six-issue series, which should be heavy on the political intrigue and conspiratorial overtones.

All that being said, it’s pretty obvious, it seems to me at any rate, where this whole thing is going to end up. The Comedian is going to find the perpetrators of the crime within our own government, be coerced or explicitly forced into helping them shape their decidedly right-wing agenda for America’s future, and what little idealism (there’s that word again) he was almost threatening to develop is going to be buried under the crushing wave of cynicism, if not outright nihilism, that solving this case engenders in him. He’ll go to Sally Jupiter/Juspeczyk for comfort at the point where he’s at his lowest, sire her daughter, and when she makes it clear she won’t allow him to play any part in his baby girl’s life, that decision, coupled with the loss of faith in pretty much anything and everything that will result from his investigations over the next five issues will result in Blake becoming the hard-assed, completely unlikable scumbag we’ve always known him to be.

Still, it’s a convincingly-written, thoroughly readable book (Azzarello seems to have something of a flair for solid, realistic dialogue), and it at least has some ambitions beyond DC’s apparent remit of “just don’t screw anything up.” I won’t be buying it in its three different variant covers (as reproduced above and drawn by Jones, Eduardo Risso, and Jim Lee, respectively), but I didn’t feel too bad about shelling out four bucks for the one copy I did get. Even though the ending might as well be telegraphed in more or less from the outset, I’m sufficiently intrigued at this point to see just how it is that we’ll arrive there.

One thing I’ll say right off the bat when it comes to the first issue of the second Before Watchmen miniseries, Silk Spectre — the art, by the very able Amanda Conner (who also co-wrote the script along with Minutemen writer/artist Darwyn Cooke) is absolutely stunning. Conner utilizes the  familiar Watchmen nine-panel grid developed by Dave Gibbons (yay! glad to see it back!) in the original series, but whereas Gibbons put his grid to use depicting grim n’ grimy urban decay, Conner delivers a modern update on the good old-fashioned romance comics look, with smooth, flowing lines that capture the youthful innocence (and naivete) of her central character, a teenage version of Laurie Juspeczyk/Jupiter, better known to all of us Watchmen aficionados as the (second) Silk Spectre. The lush and wide-ranging palette employed by colorist Paul Mounts complements Conner’s guardedly-optimistic pencil and ink work perfectly, and the result is an evocative, even forlorn at times, visual feast. You get the sense from looking at this book that Laurie knows her innocence is coming to an end, and is both eager to cleave to whatever elements of it still provide her comfort, as well as to shed those parts of it that are holding her back.

And speaking of holding her back — that’s exactly how she sees what her mother, Sally, the original Silk Spectre, is doing by forcing her to become a second-generation costumed crime-fighter. While it’s painfully obvious to anyone with a pulse that Sally’s trying to relive her own youth vicariously through her daughter, it’s also abundantly clear that Laurie doesn’t want much to do with the profession her mom’s chosen for her, and that central tension is what will lie at the core of the book, at least by all indications from this first issue.If that sort of typical coming-of-age fare doesn’t grab you, though, then neither will Before Watchmen : Silk Spectre #1. Because the other various plot elements sprinkled in — Laurie being ridiculed at school over who her mother is and what she used to do for a living (both during and after her spandex adventuring career), then falling in love for the first time, then running off with the guy she’s so smitten with — are pretty standard tropes as far as this whole genre goes, as well. It’s not a bad read, per se, by any means, but it’s not a necessary one, either, and while it’s rather interesting, as an exercise in variety if nothing else, to see the teen romance thing filtered through the prism of the Watchmen universe, this first issue, like last week’s Minutemen premier, doesn’t really add anything to our knowledge and/our understanding of the character. It’s just telling some story from her youth that so far doesn’t seem in any way especially compelling, even if it is pleasant enough lightweight reading.And it’s that word right there — lightweight — that pretty much sums up my disappointment with the first couple installments of this Watchmen prequel bonanza in a nutshell. Both Minutemen and Silk Spectre have been throwaway reads that don’t do much apart from look nice and avoid explicitly contradicting what’s come before. They haven’t proven that these books actually have any point apart from crass commercial considerations (speaking of which, this also comes packaged in three different covers, as shown above, by Conner, Dave Johnson, and Jim Lee, respectively). Not upsetting the apple cart might be enough to satisfy some readers, but when you’re packaging your books specifically as an extension of the Watchmen legacy, it’s probably fair to say that a good number of us are expecting something more challenging, thought-provoking, and dare I say even revolutionary than what we’ve seen so far. We’ll see what the first issue of Comedian has in store for us later this week, and whether or not it can finally — hopefully! — justify why these titles are even being published in the first place. So far, though, it seems that Alan Moore’s — uhmmm — vociferous reservations about the whole enterprise were entirely justified.

While most of the movie sites and blogs you might be reading are knee-deep in summer blockbuster reviews this time of year (and I myself have been, and will continue to, review such cinematic fare at the other site you can catch me on, namely http://unobtainium13.com), I figured here at my main online “hangout,” I’d devote the month of June to something a bit different — comic book reviews. Comics, you see, are my “first love,” media-wise, and while I don’t spend every last dime I have on them as I did in days gone by, I do find there are still a few reasons to go into the local comic shop once in awhile, even though, generally speaking, I could really care less about the entire superhero genre. Consequently, most of what we’ll be looking at this month won’t be adventures of men in tights and women in less-than-tights, and we’ll primarily be concentrating on, shall we say, “alternative,” “creator-driven,” or “underground” fare here — stuff the “big two” have no interest in but that provides just about the only ray of light in a medium that has become, at least creatively speaking, even darker than usual as of late. If names like Dan Clowes, Chester Brown, Joe Matt, Craig Thompson, Art Spiegelman, etc., are unfamiliar to you, my hope is that 30 days from now they won’t be, and that you’ll have found yourself sufficiently intrigued by my musings on these artists’ work to give some of what they’ve written and/or drawn a go.

All that being said, the book I’ve chosen to kick off this entire series with is the premier issue of writer/artist Darwyn Cooke’s Before Watchmen : Minutemen, which is, as you can no doubt guess, superhero fare published by DC. Granted, the promise from the publisher is that this is supposed to be intelligent superhero fare that’s a notch above its contemporaries in terms of having actual artistic value, since DC knows they’ve opened one hell of a can of worms by even revisiting the whole Watchmen universe in the first place and the only way they can keep readers who might be “on the fence” about the project on board is to give them a reason to keep coming back every week (the various interconnected Before Watchmen miniseries will be appearing weekly until they’ve all run their course).

Make no mistake about it, though — my view is that Before Watchmen is a morally and ethically bankrupt endeavor from the get-go, and I agree with those, Watchmen co-creator Alan Moore included, who think these books have no actual reason to exist and that their publication shows nothing so much as how empty the well of new ideas has run at DC (which is not to say that Marvel is any better — a quick perusal of their monthly output will show at a glance that their assembly-line-style product is, if anything, even worse than DC’s). Still — Watchmen is the pinnacle of this particular medium for me, and I love these characters. Moore and artist/co-creator Dave Gibbons (who has apparently accepted a half million bucks from DC to give these new “prequel” titles his blessing, money which Moore refused) blew my teenage mind with their book when it first came out, and it still holds up extremely well to this day. So while I fully well sympathize and agree with all the arguments against this project, I still couldn’t resist giving the first issues, at least, of the various titles a whirl. I don’t feel to good about being that morally weak, but there are times when my curiosity gets the best of my ethics.

Honestly, though, I should’ve known better. Cooke is a creator whose previous work I’m unfamiliar with (as is the case with pretty much all the writers and artists working on these titles), and his art has a pleasing 1940s look and feel to it, but right off the bat there’s not much doubt that there isn’t a fraction of the intricate visual language going on in this book that we’re used to from something that bears the name Watchmen. While Gibbons’ panels in the original series were densely-layered works that revealed more the longer you looked at them, Cooke’s images are pretty, but ultimately disposable. The convey the mood and atmosphere of a time gone by nicely, but they don’t stick in your brain and demand a thorough and lengthy appraisal.

Which, frankly, pretty well goes for the story, as well. Simply put, nothing really happens here. Hollis Mason, the original Nite Owl, is seen sitting down, petting his dog, and writing his memoir, “Under The Hood,” chapters from which were presented as text pieces at the back of the first few issues of the original Watchmen series. We’re given brief glimpses of what said book has to say about some of the other costumed adventurers in the old Minutemen group, and that’s it. We learned a lot more about these characters in Moore’s text pieces, and all Cooke is doing is filling in a few blanks that we could just as well have surmised on our own. We don;t gain any new insight into what makes them tick, or even learn about exploits we didn’t already know about, per se — the entire issue is just a visual adaptation of stuff Moore either stated explicitly, or at the very least hinted at, 25 years ago.Furthermore, today’s “decompressed” writing style in mainstream comics, largely the brainchild of Grant Morrison, is a pretty transparent attempt to do nothing more than spread out what could, and frankly should, be a single-issue story out over the space of 5 or 6 issues, and it doesn’t suit the world of these characters at all, much less give the consumer good value for money. Frankly it’s a damn good thing that I wasn’t enthused about Before Watchmen, because then I would’ve felt even more cheated by a book I just dropped $3.99 on that can be read in ten minutes. As for rereading value — this issue certainly had none. I read it straight through again right after reading it and picked up absolutely nothing new, nor did I when I gave it a third go-round the next day.It’s certainly a far cry from the original series, which was so densely-packed with layer upon layer of meaning that each issue practically demanded rereading before you felt like you had a proper grip on everything you’d just taken in. And let’s not even talk about the “multiple covers” gimmick that DC in employing here (all three covers, by Cooke, Michael Golden, and Jim Lee, respectively, are shown here) in order to get you to buy this thing three times and pay inflated “collector’s prices” for the same book (the Lee cover is already going for $100 at my comic shop of choice).

In summation, then, let’s leave aside all the controversy for a moment, necessary as it’s been. Let’s pretend that somehow this whole thing isn’t a slap in the face to Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons (albeit a slap-in-the-face-with-a-check to Gibbons). Let’s, for the sake of argument, do exactly what DC is imploring us to do and “take this project at face value.” In that case, what we have here is a nicely-drawn, somewhat-competently-written (although the presence of things like shifting verb tenses lead me to wonder if it was really even edited) “flashback”-type story that does nothing more than tell us what we already knew. The Comedian was a bastard. The Silhouette was a lesbian. Mothman was a drunk who cracked up. Dollar Bill was a publicity stunt. Nite Owl was a good egg. That’s the most we can take from this book, and it’s shit we already had figured out. That’s the extent of the critical analysis we can take away from this first issue even if we play by the rules as DC sets them out.

But if we want to be realistic here, and admit that this prequel project doesn’t exist in a vacuum,  then even if we again leave all moral and ethical qualms about it aside (I repeat,necessary as they are, don’t get me wrong), the simple fact is that this book doesn’t do anything to justify its existence, as ultimately as prequels, sequels, and remakes must. DC can’t have it both ways. They can’t tell us not to compare it to the original Watchmen while trying to cash in on the name and the reputation of that seminal work at the same time. They can’t say “here’s a Watchmen spin-off, now please don’t compare it to Watchmen.” Sorry, but life doesn’t work that way — if you don’t want this book to be compared to Watchmen, then don’t call it Before Watchmen and don’t feature Watchmen characters in it. Simple, right? And so is Before Watchmen : Minutemen #1. Simple, quick, rehashed, uninvolving, and ultimately pointless.