Posts Tagged ‘brian azzarello’

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Before we get rolling on our look back at 2016 in the world of comics, let’s take a brief moment to acknowledge the passing of two masters, shall we? Darwyn Cooke and Steve Dillon were  very different artists with very different visions and very different styles, no doubt about that, but both were among the very best at what they did, both entered this undeserving world in 1962, and both exited it, leaving it a decidedly poorer place for their passing, in 2016. Both gentleman turned the medium upside – down with their brilliance and created bodies of work that are more than guaranteed to stand the test of time, so I feel it’s only appropriate, prior to diving into our annual retrospective (which, you’ve officially been warned, will take a minute, so buckle in) to say “thank you” and “we miss you” one more time to this pair of undeniable greats. And now, onto the business at hand —

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Wow, it’s been quite a ride, hasn’t it? In a year when both of the “Big Two” decided to hit the “reset” button again, it’s probably fair to say that DC Universe : Rebirth #1 — and the entire Rebirth initiative in general — will go down as the major “event” of 2016, given that it essentially catapulted the publisher from a distant-second-place competitor to Marvel to “Top Dog” in the industry in the space of one month. That doesn’t mean that the comic itself was any good, of course — my feelings on it are well-known and I believe that Geoff Johns and his artistic collaborators Gary FrankEthan Van SciverIvan Reis and Phil Jimenez essentially churned out a stinkbomb here that will ultimately do both the DCU “proper” as well as the so-called “Watchmen Universe” no favors by setting them on a collision course with each other — but at this point, what’s done is done, and in the short run that means we’ve got a two-horse race for the top spot in the Diamond sales charts every month as DC’s decidedly mediocre twice-monthly efforts compete with yet fucking another round of “Marvel Now!” relaunched books that by and large are, in their own way, every bit as uninspired and predictable as their rivals’ four-color “floppies.” Honestly, this has been the most convoluted path back to the status quo that I’ve ever seen, and just goes to show that a bunch of hype is all that’s needed to sell readers on the same old crap. Of the two reboots, Marvel’s is the most promising, given that they’ve made an effort to carve out some space for genuinely interesting and off-beat titles, but you know most of ’em aren’t going to last, as the so-called “House Of Ideas” is putting far more promotional muscle behind crap like this —

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than they are behind intriguing and potentially subversive fare like this :

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So, yeah, on the whole, count me as being more or less completely uninspired by both major initiatives by both major publishers. Marvel’s in the awkward position (although it’s one they’re well used to after last year’s Secret Wars) of rolling out a raft of new books hot on the tail of a major crossover that hasn’t even ended yet, given that Civil War II was beset by the usual delays we’ve come to expect from these things, but I do give ’em credit for having about a half-dozen or so pretty good books stemming from “Marvel Now!” 2016 — and that’s roughly four more than post-Rebirth DC is giving us. For all that, though, once you move outside the Rebirth realm, DC is actually putting out a fair number of quite good books, which brings us to our main order of business here —

Ryan C.’s Top 10 Comics Series Of 2016

Same rules as always apply : these can be either “limited” or “ongoing” series — as long as they came out within the past 12 months in single-issue format (our preferred consumption method around these parts), we don’t discriminate. But it’s not a “real” Top 10 list without at least a couple of “honorable mentions,” though, is it? So let’s look at those first —

Honorable Mention #1 : American Monster (Aftershock)

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Brian Azzarello — whose name will be coming up again later for decidedly less complimentary reasons — is proving he’s “still got it” and then some with this decidedly sleazy, amoral small-town crime series that features a cast of pedophiles, gun-runners, neo-Nazis, corrupt preachers, and other fine, upstanding citizens. And Juan Doe‘s animation-cel inspired art is absolutely killer. Unfortunately, this book has seen so many publication delays that we only got three issues all year. If it was coming out on anything like an even remotely consistent basis, this would not only be “Top 10” material all the way, it might be “Top 2 Or 3.” I love this comic. Now feed me more of it.

Honorable Mention #2 : Power Man And Iron Fist (Marvel)

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David F. Walker is The Man. You could ask for no more perfect writer to chronicle the exploits of Luke Cage and Danny Rand. And Sanford Greene and frequent fill-in Flaviano Armentaro are doing a nice job on the art. Unfortunately, this title got sidetracked for no less than four months into the creative black hole that is Civil War II, and while these issues weren’t bad for tie-in nonsense, they were still — well, tie-in nonsense. Now that we’ve got the real story rolling again, all is right with the world, and you can blame this one narrowly missing out on the Top 10 squarely and solely on Marvel editorial, who steered the ship into “event” territory before it even had a chance to properly get its feet off the ground. It was a real momentum-killing decision, and I sincerely hope it won’t prove to be a fatal one, as well — but it may turn out to be just that given that sales on this series have been tanking in recent months. So much for the notion that cross-over “events” boost interest in a book.

Honorable Mention #3 : Love And Rockets (Fantagraphics)

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I’m not too proud to admit it — seeing the first issue of this new series from Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez on the shelves of my LCS, and back in its original magazine format at that, was enough to make me tear up just a little bit for a second. It was hardly an issue for the ages or anything, but everything about this just feels right. I love it when life comes full-circle, I love Los Bros., I love their characters, and I love this world. It’s a shoe-in for the Top 10 next year, but one issue is simply too small a sample size for me too include it in good conscience this time out. Not that I wasn’t tempted.

Honorable Mention #4 : The Fix (Image)

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Nobody does fuck-up criminal low-lifes like Nick Spencer and Steve Lieber, and in the pages of this book they up the ante by making their fuck-up criminal low-lifes cops, to boot. This comic is all kinds of perverse and depraved fun, and I’d dearly love to have found a spot for it in the Top 10, but there simply wasn’t room for more than — well, shit, ten titles. Nevertheless, it’s a series you absolutely should be pulling.

And now onto the main event —

10. Doom Patrol (DC’s Young Animal)

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The flagship title of Gerard Way‘s new “art comics” imprint, this book is proving a mere three issues in that it’s gonna push these characters in directions even Grant Morrison never dreamed of. Way and artist Nick Derington are doing the genuinely unthinkable here — producing a well and truly experimental comic with the full blessing of one of the “Big Two” publishers. All may not be lost, after all.

9. Deadly Class (Image)

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Rick Remender and Wes Craig gave us the “Holy Shit!” moment of the year in comics when they actually fucking killed their protagonist (doubly shocking when you consider he was an obvious stand-in for a youthful Remender himself) twenty-some issues in, but the new crop of students at King’s Dominion Atelier For The Deadly Arts is decidedly less interesting than was the last, hence the drop for this series from its loftier perch last year.

8. Southern Bastards (Image)

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Jasons Aaron and Latour just don’t let up. This deep-friend southern noir is loaded with so much gallows humor, spot-on characterization, and low-rent evil that not even a spotty publication schedule and a lackluster fill-in issue could keep it outta the Top 10. A legend in the making, even if it ends up taking a decade for it all to get made.

7. Jacked (Vertigo)

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As near as I can determine, nobody other than myself actually read Eric Kripke and John Higgins’ superb six-part tale of pharmaceutically-charged super-hero revisionism, and that’s a damn shame as it’s one of the single finest and most honest portrayals of mid-life crisis that this beleaguered medium has ever produced, and the art is simply sensational. Do yourself a favor and grab it in trade — you won’t be disappointed, and you won’t hate yourself for that beer gut and receding hairline anymore, either.

6. The Vision (Marvel)

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Enough ink — both physical and digital — has been spilled in praise of Tom King and Gabriel Hernandez Walta‘s admittedly Philip K. Dick-inspired techno-Shakespearean tragedy that adding to it just feels like piling on against the rest of the industry at this point. Suffice to say all the superlatives you’ve heard are true and then some and yeah, this one has “destined to be talked about for years to come” written all over it.

5. Hip Hop Family Tree (Fantagraphics)

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Ed Piskor put the wraps on the 12-part single-issue reprintings of his cultural history milestone earlier this year, and while I’ll certainly continue to collect and enjoy his oversized hardcover volumes, there was just something about having these previously-told stories presented on cheap, pre-yellowed newsprint that was beyond awesome. And the last issue even came packaged with an old-school floppy record — that was actually a code for a free digital download, but whatever. This book was more satisfying than a 40 of Olde English on a hot summer day.

4. Glitterbomb (Image)

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Jim Zub and deliriously-talented newcomer Djibril Morissette-Pham came out of nowhere with this series about Lovecraftian horror intersecting with the seedier side of post-fame Tinseltown (with bloody results) and just blew me the fuck away. The surprise hit of the year for this armchair critic and a book I can’t stop thinking or talking about. The first trade should be out soon enough and collects the self-contained story presented in issues 1-4,  and they’re coming back in late 2017 with a new arc that — man, I just don’t even know where they go from here. But I’m dying to find out.

3. The Flintstones (DC)

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Believe it. Mark Russell and Steve Pugh are putting out the most socially- and politically-relevant comic on the stands, and the satire in this book is by turns hilarious and heartwarming. A truly “mature” take on characters we thought we already knew everything there was to know about, and consistently one of the smartest books you’ll have the pleasure of reading. I don’t know that I have words to adequately describe how unexpectedly awesome this series is — when I said that DC was actually putting out some damn good stuff outside its main Rebirth line, this is exactly what I was talking about. If you’d have told me a year ago that one of the books I was going to be most eagerly looking forward to month-in and month-out was going to be The Flintstones, I would have thought you’d lost it. In fact, I probably would have said that Donald effing Trump had a better chance of being elected president. And yet, here we are — ain’t life crazy? And shitty? But at least we have this comic, and as antidotes to a new age of right-wing anti-intellectual barbarism go, you won’t find much better.

2. The Sheriff Of Babylon (Vertigo)

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The Vision may have gotten all the attention, but Tom King‘s best series of 2016 — by a wide margin, in my view — was this Iraq-set murder mystery drawn heavily from his own experiences as a CIA case officer during that bloody boondoggle of a war. Every aspect of this comic is almost painfully authentic, and Mitch Gerads rounds the package out with artwork so gritty you can feel the sand underneath your fingertips. This. Shit. Was. Amazing. Or maybe that should be “is” amazing, since — well, more on that in a minute.

1. Providence (Avatar)

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I’m out of superlatives, honestly. I review each issue of this series as it comes out, and my mind is blown more completely every time. I said last year that Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows were potentially creating the comic of the young century with this volume of their “Lovecraft Cycle,” and with one installment left to go in this 12-parter, I think it’s safe to say we can take the “potentially” qualifier out of that statement :  Providence is, in fact, the best comic of the century so far.

Wait, though! We’re far from done —

On the graphic novel front, it’s gotta be said that 2016 was a banner year, as well, in many respects — but I’m always a bit perplexed on how best to assemble a “best-of” list when it comes to the GN format because it only seems fair to subdivide it down into wholly original works, trade collections, old-school vintage reprints, etc. Throw in the fact that may “original” graphic novels got their start as serialized installments on the web, and things get even dicier. What really constitutes “new” work anymore? Still, there is definitely plenty outside the realm of the single-issue “floppy” that deserves a mention, and so —

Original Graphic Novel Of The Year : Patience By Daniel Clowes (Fantagraphics)

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Five years in the making, and it shows in every panel on every page. Clowes outdoes himself with each new project, it seems, and this is jewel in his creative crown — until the next one, at any rate. Love, obsession, longing, time travel, regret, loneliness, desolation — even optimism? This work encompasses all of it and then some; a monumental achievement of staggering proportions.

Best Collected Edition Of Recent Work : American Blood By Benjamin Marra (Fantagraphics)

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Anyone who’s read Terror Assaulter : O.M.W.O.T. knows that Ben Marra exists on a planet of his own, and this collection of the self-published works issued under his awesomely-named Traditional Comics imprint runs the stylistic gamut from insanely exaggerated pseudo-“realism” to Gary Panter-esque primitive id-channeling. WaPo columnist Maureen Dowd as a sexy super-spy? Bloodthirsty barbarians from distant worlds? Gang-bangers who do nothing but fuck and kill? Freed slaves who can tear white men apart with their bare hands? It’s all here, in suitably gaudy purple-and-white.

Best Collected Edition Of Vintage WorkMarvel Masterworks : The Black Panther, Volume 2 By Jack Kirby (Marvel)

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In recent years, the awesome body of work produced by The King Of Comics during his second, late-’70s stint at Marvel has finally been given its due as the visionary output it so clearly was, but while books like Machine ManThe EternalsDevil Dinosaur and “Madbomb!”-era Captain America have now taken their rightful place among the rich pantheon of Kirby masterworks, Jack’s Black Panther run from that same period still doesn’t get anything like the love it deserves. Hopefully this handsome hardbound collection will finally start to clue readers in to what a magical and imaginative Wakanda Kirby created in this high-flying techno-fantasy epic.

It wasn’t all good news, though, and since we’re on the subject of T’Challa, we might as well segue into some of 2016’s lowlights —

Most Disappointing Series Of The Year #1 : Black Panther (Marvel)

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There’s no doubt that Ta-Nehisi Coates is a literary and journalistic genius, and his voice in this ugly new Trump-ian era is more necessary and urgent than ever. Unfortunately, he can’t write a comic to save his life, and his dour, humorless, self-absorbed, navel-gazing take on The Panther reads like a relic of the worst sort of over-wrought 1990s excesses. This is a genuinely lousy title, and it doesn’t help that neither of its usually-reliable artists, Brian Stelfreeze and Chris Sprouse, are delivering anything like their best work.

Most Disappointing Series Of The Year #2 : Batman (DC)

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Tom King giveth, and Tom King taketh away. We’ve already covered the great stuff he’s given readers in 2016, but he’s also taken one of the most consistently-good super-hero books and turned it into a massive fucking train wreck. Lots of people were jazzed when he was announced as Scott Snyder‘s replacement on the “main” Bat-book, but King has struggled to find a “voice” for Bruce Wayne either in or out of the cape and cowl, his two major storylines to date have featured ridiculous plots, and 13 issues in all we can really say is that he writes a pretty good Alfred. The illustration by David Finch on the first five-issue story arc was atrocious, and the only thing that saved this title from being dropped from my pull for the first time ever was when the magnificent Mikel Janin took over art chores with the second arc and delivered work of absolutely breathtaking scope and grandeur. Still, at this point, I have to say — when he goes, I go. And I think he’s gone after next issue. And yet, horseshit as this book has been, it’s nothing compared with our —

Worst Comic Of The Year : Dark Knight III : The Master Race (DC)

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Unmitigated garbage that plumbs new depths of hopelessness with every issue, Brian AzzarelloAndy Kubert and Klaus Janson (with nominal involvement from Frank Miller) are doing something here no one thought possible : making fans yearn for the days of The Dark Knight Strikes Again!  (which, admittedly, I’ve always liked, but no one else does). Also, they seem to be doing their level best to match that title’s glacial publication schedule. At this rate, we’re gonna wait three years to complete a story that’s been a total waste of time from the outset. This series is honestly starting to rival Before Watchmen  in the “artistically-bankrupt blatant cash-grab” category. I expected nothing from it, true — and yet somehow we’re getting even less than that.

I’m going to close on something of a high note for DC, though, if you can believe it, because they also get the award for —

Best Development Of 2016 DC’s Young Animal

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I’m still not sure what the hell a “pop-up imprint” is, but Gerard Way has one he can call his very own, and so far all four series released under this label’s auspices — Doom Patrol (as previously discussed), Shade, The Changing GirlCave Carson Has A Cybernetic Eye and Mother Panic — have been not just good, but great. While at first DCYA sounded like little more than a stylistic heir to vintage-era Veritgo to my mind, in fact its aims seem to be much different, while admittedly utilizing a number of characters and concepts from that fan-favorite period. This is an imprint where anything both goes and can happen, and we’ve sorely needed that for waaaaayyy too long. In short, this is the most exciting thing either of the “Big Two” have done in — shit, as long as I can remember. Long may it continue.

So — What About The Year To Come?

By the sound of it there’s plenty to be excited about, from Warren Ellis spearheading the re-launch of WildStorm to the debuts of much-publicized new series from Image such as God Country and The Few, but my most-anticipated events of 2017 (at least as far we know now) would have to be —

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March 31st (seriously, guys?) is slated as the provisional release date for Providence #12, and to say that I can’t wait to find out how it all ends would be an understatement of criminal proportions. It would also be an equally-proportionate understatement to say that I’ll simply “miss” this series when it’s over. So, ya know, maybe take your time with that last issue, after all.

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The so-called second “season” of The Sheriff Of Babylon is due to hit sometime in the latter part of the year and, simple as the “teaser” image shown above was, it was still enough to get me excited. And finally —

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January sees the release of the first installment of Kamandi Challenge, a “round-robin” 12-part series from DC starring The Last Boy On Earth that features a different creative team on each issue trying to solve the cliffhangers left by the folks the month before, as well setting up new messes for the next bunch to get themselves out of. This is the first of what I hope to be many releases commemorating the 100th anniversary of the birth of Jack Kirby that we can look forward to over the next 12 months — in fact, DC has just also announced an omnibus hardcover reprinting of Kirby’s entire original Kamandi run, so let’s hope that 2017 really will be a vintage year for fans of The King.

Whew! Okay! We’re done for the year! Enjoy your holidays — or what remains of them — and we’ll see you back here in January, when we get to start the whole thing all over again!

 

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Question : what do you get when you combine a violent home invasion, an ex-mercenary (I think) with a burned-off face, a bunch of good ole’ boys who hang out in a convenience store and like to make fun of the retard who mops the floors there, a grotesquely overweight lecherous creep who lurks in playgrounds paying teenage girls to flash their tits, and a sadistic neo-Nazi meth-gang leader whose idea of fun is to strap a husband and wife to chairs facing each other, give them both guns, tell them that one has to shoot the other in the face in order to survive, and then kills the “winner” anyway?

If your answer is “probably the most depraved and amoral comic book of the year,” congratulations! You’re exactly right. But, as much misanthropic fun as that is in and of itself, my best guess is that writer Brian Azzarello and artist Juan Doe (yeah, I don’t think that’s what his birth certificate says, either)’s  new Aftershock Comics series American Monster is also going to prove to be something more than that — at least I hope so.

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When it comes to slow-burn, ultra-violent, hard-boiled crime comics, Azzarello certainly has the pedigree to inspire confidence despite the admittedly disjointed, “where-the-fuck-is-this-going-anyway?” nature of this first issue. Or had it, at any rate. Frankly, I’d be a lot more inclined to give him all the leeway he needs if he’d just been coming off 100 Bullets or Jonny Double, but those were — what? Fifteen years ago? His most recent “street-level” projects have been far less successful, as anyone who endured his agonizing run on John Constantine : Hellblazer or his wretched Joker graphic novel can tell you. And while his character-redefining run on Wonder Woman has met with a fair amount of praise (how could it not? He included Wesley Willis among the pantheon of gods!), his penchant for involving himself with deplorable cash-in projects like Before Watchmen and Dark Knight III : The Master Race knocks his formerly-sterling reputation down a few notches in my estimation, as well. Sure, one could argue that his Comedian and Rorschach books never had a chance in the first place and that he was maybe trying to make the most of a bad situation, but really — he’s a grown man and should have had better sense than to get involved in such a fiasco. So I guess the question here is — which Azzarello are we going to get? The one everybody loved back in the early 2000s, or the money-grubbing “pen for hire” we’ve seen of more recent vintage?

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So far, the jury’s still out on that one. American Monster #1 definitely features plenty of the strong-characterization-achieved-with-minimal-dialogue that was a mainstay of his earlier, stronger work, as well as a lot of almost celebratory sadism that used to be his stock-in-trade, so there’s reason to keep your fingers crossed here. There’s also an obvious moral dimension at play from the outset, in that the “American Monster” of the title clearly refers to the nameless (so far), faceless (as in literally) stranger who just drifted into whatever anonymous Midwestern shithole this story takes place in, but everyone else we meet in this opening installment is, in fact, even uglier than he is — their deformities just happen to be on the inside.

I know, I know — the idea that there’s a deep, incurable sickness underneath the Norman Rockwell-esque image of small town Americana has been done to death, but it can still be an effective enough trope if handled correctly. Shit, at the end of the day it’s still what Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks were really all about, and while Azzarello on his best day probably isn’t worthy of shining David Lynch’s shoes, there’s an undeniable vibe running from first page to last here that, close to the vest as he’s keeping his cards, he’ll know precisely when to lay them on the table for maximum impact. The number of visceral body-blown he lands in this issue alone shows that he’s got a very firm handle on both his story and its implications. So again, whether deserved or not, I’m airing on the side of guarded optimism here and happy to give our scribe at least five or six more issues to either earn or lose my trust.

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Ditto for the artist — Doe is not someone whose previous work I’m familiar with, but he has a clean, linear style that really works when it works (the scenes featuring regular characters going about their far less-than-regular daily business) and really misses when it misses (our titular “monster” looks far too cartoon-ish and the violence lacks some of the immediacy that a “dirtier, grimier” style would impart it with). More pages looked good than not, though, so I’m prepared to let his visual storytelling style either grow on me, or alienate me altogether — whichever comes first, I guess.

And speaking of alienation, if you need your story to have a hero, this series will probably put you off right out of the gate. There don’t seem to be any actual “good guys” on offer, the question here is only which of these hopelessly-compromised, sullied characters is going to prove to be less bad. We always like fuck-ups and reclamation projects and multiple-times-over losers who come through unexpectedly and do the right thing at the right time, and odds are that American Monster is going to give somebody, somewhere in this cesspool of depravity a chance to be that sort of  temporary hero- by- way -of -circumstance- rather -than- design. Whether or not they —whoever “they” may be — comes through? Well, guess we’re going to have to take a “wait and see” approach with regards to that, as well.

So, what the hell — count me in, at least for now. Azzarello and Doe have shown me enough to convince me that this is worth $3.99 a pop for a little while longer, and I harbor faint hopes that we might even be heading for something kinda, dare I say it, special here. And while a title like American Monster might be best suited for a Donald Trump biography, this comic seems determined, among other things, to give us a cold, hard look at the fetid swamp of psychological, emotional, and material insecurity bubbling under the polite surface of American life that makes it possible for a shithead billionaire demagogue in a toupee to rise to power in the first place. We’re meeting the enemy in the pages of this comic — and he is us.

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So — here it is. The conclusion (that’s no longer a conclusion) to Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns epic that, at least according to DC’s promotional blurbs, “you never saw coming.” Probably because after The Dark Knight Strikes Again! most people really didn’t want to see another installment in this saga coming, but hey — we’ve got one anyway. And now that we do, I’m honestly shocked at how little the finished product differs from the admittedly dim impression I had of it in my head back when it was first announced that they were going back to this well one more time.

Before we get to that, though, I have a few things to say about how we got here — and even where we’re going from here — so let’s take care of all that first, shall we?

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The word “legendary” is, of course, a horribly overused one these days, but 1986’s Batman : The Dark Knight Returns was just that. I’m operating under the assumption that most readers of this review don’t need any sort of briefing on either what it was or the long-lasting effects it had on the superhero comic medium, but even if you do, sorry — you’re not going to get it here. All I’m going to say is that its reputation is well-deserved and that, yes, it really is at least as good as everyone’s always said it is.

Where I do part company with conventional wisdom, though, is in my absolute love for its 2001 sequel, the already-mentioned The Dark Knight Strikes Again! Yes, it’s every bit as haphazard, frenetic, tonally all-over-the-place, and gleefully sadistic as its detractors claim, but what of it? No less an authority than cartoonist extraordinaire James Kochalka has said that DK2, as its more commonly known, reads like it’s the creation of “a 12-year-old kid who knows he can make a better comic than Frank Miller,” and I can’t really think of higher praise than that. This book positively crackles with youthful recklessness and exuberance from the outset and never lets up, despite the fact that its author apparently suffered something of a guilt-related mental breakdown halfway through its creation due to the fact that in the second issue he showed Batman flying a plane into the LexCorp tower and, just a few months later, a handful of terrorists went and did much the same thing in the real world. Miller became a strident Islamophobic jackass after that, as evidenced not only by his decidedly racist and xenophobic graphic novel Holy Terror (which actually started out as a Batman comic until he decided to replace the Caped Crusader with a stand-in character of his own devising), but also by a good number of inflammatory statements he made about Muslims in various interviews at the time of the book’s release — but guess what? Those reactionary views don’t impinge on DK2‘s conclusion in any way and, if you go back and read the third and final issue of that series again, you’ll see that it’s actually one of the most bombastic critiques of the Bush administration and its then-newly-launched “War On Terrorism” to ever see print in any “entertainment” medium. The book had a “rap” for being a glorification of fascism and some of the ugly right-wing conceits at the heart of vigilantism in general, but you know what? The same is true of The Dark Knight Returns, only that takes itself waaaaaaayyyyy more fucking seriously. The entire Dark Knight series is politically and socially problematic, and actively relishes its own confrontationalism, but only the sequel seems to get accused of engaging in that sort of brusque artistic brow-beating, and this despite the fact that Miller’s worst excesses all came to light well after its release. I’m just gonna come right out and say it, and you can reserve my padded cell for me anytime, I guess : I’ll take DK2 over its more-celebrated predecessor any day of the week. To me, it’s the closest thing we’ll ever have to an “underground” Batman comic and yeah, while it’s definitely a much “uglier” and less “professional”-looking book in a visual sense, it’s absolutely bristling with righteous creative zeal that can’t be faked. Rumor has it that DC paid Miller a million dollars to do it, and he took their money, unzipped his fly, and pissed right in their face. Why do so many people have such a hard time respecting that?dkiii-p1-157314

Still, one thing I think we can all agree on is that a natural assumption was made at the end of DK2 that the story was over. If you liked the book, chances are that you figured Miller had said everything he had to say about the future “Batman Universe” he’d created, and if you’re among the majority who didn’t just dislike, but flat-out loathed it, you probably guessed that there was just no freaking way DC would even allow him anywhere near a Dark Knight project again.

As it turns out, everyone was wrong. Sort of.

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As you can see from the two pages reproduced above, the editorially-directed (by Miller and his publisher’s own admission) Dark Knight III : The Master Race looks as different to its two forebears as Strikes Again! did to Returns, and there’s a damn good reason for this — yes, DC’s gone back to the world he initially envisioned, but our guy Frank is only on hand as a ” story consultant” of sorts/very part-time artistic helping hand, and the art on this new eight-part series is being handled by penciller Andy Kubert, original Dark Knight inker Klaus Janson, and colorist Brad Anderson, with the scripting being entrusted to Brian Azzarello. Most folks have made the reasonable inference that this is due to Miller’s obviously-failing health, but with his recent announcement that there is, in fact, going to be a Dark Knight 4 that he intends to write and draw himself, I’m of the opinion that he’s actually sort of outfoxed his own bosses here.

Consider : Miller signs off on the idea of a Dark Knight III and even agrees to draw a couple of the near-infinite number of variant covers (his is reproduced as the second image in this review, while Jim Lee’s 500-to-1 variant is shown below) adorning the comics (as well as the first of the Dark Knight Universe Presents mini-comics being glued inside each issue, this one starring The Atom) in order to appear to give the project even more of his imprimatur. Why not? He knows damn well, from observing the Before Watchmen debacle, that DC’s gonna go ahead with this with or without his blessing, and he also knows that they really don’t want him doing it. They’re just too chickenshit. How, then, to make sure that he really does get to do another Dark Knight book, and to do it his way? Piggy-back onto this project, give it his full-throated blessing, deposit DC/Warner’s check,  and then announce that his involvement on it has actually been quite minimal and that he’s got his own fourth installment in the works. What’s DC gonna do at that point? Tell him “no”? They literally can’t. And so, by appearing to go along with their game, he actually got them right where he wanted them. Well played, Mr. Miller, well played.

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All of which relegates the provocatively-titled Dark Knight III : The Master Race (a name, it should be said, whose significance is in no way even hinted at, much less explained, in this first issue) to something of a stop-gap measure, or the story that takes place in between “real” Dark Knight stories. And maybe that’s just as well, because this seems to be a very un-ambitious comic that exists merely to fit into some dull editorial remit to create a book that picks up after DK2 while aping the feel of DK1. As far as the art goes, it appears that Kubert was given a bit more leeway to illustrate things in his own style, but the cover (as seen at the top of this review) certainly looks like it could have come right out of Miller’s Sin City, and the interior pages show a much sleeker, more noir-influenced look than we’ve seen from him in the past. It’s probably fair to suppose that the orders from on high were something along the lines of “don’t copy Frank’s style per se, but make sure that whatever you do fits in with the look of the first Dark Knight series.” And so it does.

As does Azzarello’s story, but here things get a bit dicier, because this really does read like a pale approximation of The Dark Knight Returns done by a lesser talent. We’ve got some nods to the current social media landscape thrown in from the outset,  and a few knowing glances are cast in the direction of mass movements like Black Lives Matter in that police brutality seems to be the issue that brings the once-again-retired-Dark Knight back to the streets of Gotham (a topic the same author explored in a recent fill-in issue on the main Batman title), but everything here really is piggybacking onto events in the 1986 original moreso than it’s taking its cues from the modern world. Azzarello tries to mimc some of the “Batman is back” excitement of the first issue of DK1, but it feels rushed and incomplete in terms of the buildup involved and so largely falls flat, and the same can certainly be said of the double-page spread of TV talking heads that you just knew was gonna be in here someplace. The subplots involving Wonder Woman and her infant son, and that of  her teenage daughter (with Superman, don’t forget!) Lara seem marginally more interesting, but no sooner do we get some brief exposure to them than we find ourselves thrust back into the “A” narrative and see the GCPD violently bringing Batman down after he proves to be a sensation on twitter and shit. His final (for this issue, at any rate) confrontation with the cops comes the closest of anything in this opening installment to delivering that old-school DK wallop, and no doubt the presence of Janson on inks helps to authenticate some of the more blatant, but successful, stylistic thievery that Kubert finally succumbs to in this penultimate sequence, but it still isn’t quite the “real deal,” nor is it clever and/or totally shameless enough to let you forget it. The unmasking of Batman provides for a doozy of a cliffhanger, sure, but even that’s not all that terribly surprising once the initial wave of “holy shit!”-ness subsides. Come to think of it, one could argue that it succeeds largely because you do, in fact, “see it coming,” but it’s so fucking cool that you’re willing to go along with it because it steers a story you never really wanted to see anyway into a direction that you could potentially be  happy to have it going. One brief heads-up, though : don’t read the mini-comic either first, or in the middle of the book as its presented, because it gives the ending of the main story away completely. DC probably should have glued the thing into the back rather than the center of the comic, just in case, but  given that they’ve sort of made lousy decision-making into an art form over there in recent years,  what else could you really expect?

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Speaking of the mini-comics — and the physical format of the series in general — Miller’s caught a lot of heat for showing “Superman’s junk” on the cover (shown above) for Dark Knight Universe Presents The Atom, and why not? It really is a lousy piece of illustration, any way you slice it. But his art on the interior pages — which sees him paired with Janson for the first time since DK1 — is actually surprisingly good in the strictest formal sense of the term, and when you combine that with the fact that the script for this little “side-step,” revolving as it does around a mystery of sorts developing within the Bottle City of Kandor, is actually fairly interesting, you could make a pretty strong case for the notion that the mini-comic is, in actuality, the best thing about Dark Knight III : The Master Race #1. In fact, I believe I did just that. I’ve gotta be honest, though — the old “Dark Knight format,” as it used to be called, gave you a lot more bang for your buck than the 32-pages-for-$5.99 thing that they’re putting this new series out in. Yeah, you get a glossy cover and there are no ads, but it’s still a standard stapled format rather than the squarebound binding of old, and while the paper’s good and all, it’s not nearly as good as we’re used to in a Dark Knight comic.

These problems, of course, will all be corrected in two weeks, when the so-called “deluxe edition” is released that consists of a hardcover version of the comic with the mini-comic “blown up” to full size, but the $12.99 price point for a re-packaged version of a comic that just came out 14 days previously shows what a naked cash-grab this whole enterprise really is. I mentioned DC’s other notorious naked cash-grab of recent vintage, Before Watchmen, previously, and I suppose it should come as no surprise that both the writer and artist on Dark Knight III : The Master Race are “alums,” if you will, of that cynical, year-long, slow-motion disaster. I’m not ready to say that their newest project is anywhere near as artistically worthless and morally deplorable as BW was — and despite the breezy, thowaway nature of the first 3/4 of this issue, the ending gives me at least a shred of hope that we might be in for an interesting, if hopelessly derivative, time here — but who knows? It’s early days yet, and they could still surprise me with the depth of their creative bankruptcy. Their publisher, however, no longer can, and the sad truth is that the mere existence of a Dark Knight III proves that DC not only has nothing left in the tank, but has given up altogether on even trying to convince us otherwise. Having spent 20-plus years trying — and failing — to find the “next Dark Knight” and the “next Watchmen,” they appear more than happy to simply snatch up the last few dollars an ever-dwindling readership is willing to fork over to watch them kick the corpses of their once-greatest triumphs.

 

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So, this is it — the end of the line for both Before Watchmen, and for my reviews of same. I guess that means you’re doubly lucky today! Seriously, though — to those of you who have stuck this out (assuming there are any of you — frankly, I have no idea), I offer my sincere thanks, while to DC, I offer my sincere middle finger for taking up a lot of my time and money on a project that, ultimately, was of even less worth than it appeared to be going in.

Yeah, I know — I was the one stupid enough to keep buying these things, so to myself, I offer a swift kick in the ass.

Anyway, after numerous delays, the sixth and final issue of Brian Azzarello and J.G. Jones’ Comedian mini-series finally hit the stands earlier today, and while I can say it’s probably the best-written issue of this book since the first, that’s really not saying much. At best, this is merely an average “mature” superhero comic, with an ending that, let’s face it, those of us still left reading this thing have been able to see coming for quite some time now (and even if you didn’t, the cover pretty much telegraphs it  from the outset). I’ve been saying for quite some time that the whole BW debacle was ending with a whimper, but I had no idea how literally true that would be — this issue wraps up with Eddie Blake crying after he does what he feels, I guess, he has to do (again, see cover), and there ain’t no grand finale; no shocked, rapturous awe; no stunned silence — nothin’. DC’s promo tagline for this issue (the story title for which, incidentally, is “Eighties” — something I’m embarrassed to admit I don’t understand in the least , and given that Azzarello isn’t exactly known for his subtlety, I’m feeling doubly stupid for my slowness on the uptake. Perhaps one of you good people could explain it for me?) is “Do you remember how Before Watchmen began? Because you’re never going to forget how it ends,” and if there’s any better proof that they need some more competent PR folks down there at 1700 West Broadway, I’m hard-pressed to think of it. They’re essentially admitting that the whole experience has been a pretty forgettable one right from the outset, but promising that, 37 comics (in total) later, they’re gonna do their best to make up for lost time and missed opportunities.

Talk about too little too late. Truth be told, I probably will   forget Before Wathcmen‘s ending as surely as I have its beginning, since it’s about as pre-formulated and predictable as, say,  the breakfast special at Denny’s. And probably about as good for you, too.

Still, the issue itself’s not a total waste — there’s a nifty little scene where The Comedian has a strictly-off-the-record meeting with G. Gordon Liddy that’s enjoyable enough and also hints at the fact that Blake may end up setting Liddy up vis a vis Watergate — but then you remember that Watergate never happened in the “Watchmen Universe” since it was made clear that it was Blake himself who killed Woodward and Bernstein, so Azzarello’s supposed “cleverness” with this sequence is, alas, ultimately wasted. Rather like the talents of everyone who participated in this project and the money of everyone who supported it.

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Jones’ art is, us usual, perfectly nice in its own standard-superhero-book sorta way, as is his cover (shown at top) and the variant by Rafael Albuquerque (shown immediately above), but again, nothing terribly memorable, just competent. And maybe that’s the saddest, and most telling  indictment when it comes to Before Watchmen : Comedian —  it got so damn bad so damn fast that here, at the end, even a mildly competent effort seems like an improvement. Seriously, you don’t even need to compare this with Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ original Watchmen series for it to fall up short —- just compare it to any other books out there on the racks. After an absolute  barn-burner of a fist issue, this series quickly settled into a parade of dull, pointless, hopelessly lazy and unambitious flashback stories that were lifeless and unimaginative when set in Viet Nam, and even worse when the “action” returned Stateside (remember the flat-out atrocious third issue, set during the Watts riots?) — all presented with little to no plot escalation or dramatic tension. It all reads as if Azzarello knew that he wanted to bookend things with the assassinations of the Kennedy brothers, but didn’t much care what happened in between. That would be bad enough with a four-part series, but in a six-parter it’s absolutely inexcusable.

Still — it’s over, right? Before Watchmen has come and gone, and we’ve all somehow survived. The universe didn’t implode in on itself, and if you’re one of those people whose fondest wish was to see the characters from what remains, to this day, the best superhero comic ever conceived of (and how said is it that in over a quarter-century this particular genre still hasn’t offered up anything better?) put into bog-standard, go-nowhere, typical-at-best stories, then hey — you’re probably pretty happy right now, and I’m happy for you. For the rest of us, the best thing that Before Watchmen did was to finally end.

And speaking of endings — the BW books might be over with, but my dissection of them isn’t. Well, okay, it is here, but it isn’t in a more general sense — if you want to read more of my dripping-with-disenchantment thoughts on the whole fiasco, I’m in the midst of a series of weekly postings over at http://www.geekyuniverse.com that takes a post-mortem look at each of the Before Watchmen mini-series in turn, so if you found my issue-by-issue ramblings either enlightening or annoying, my more generalized wrap-ups/analyses over there may be to your liking, as well. Other than that, I’m all written-out on this subject, and I honestly don’t see myself giving any of these books a secondary reading anytime in the near — or even distant — future. The end feels like a relief.

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Another week, another Before Watchmen book draws — mercifully, I might add — to a close, as we reach the “climactic” final issue of Brian Azzarello and Lee Bermejo’s four-part Rorschach mini-series. And frankly it’s not a moment too soon.

I’m not even sure how to properly convey my overall disappointment with this one, folks — and at this point I wasn’t even expecting much. It’s no secret I’ve been more than a tad disappointed by the entire BW project as a whole, but the concluding chapter of Before Watchmen : Rorschach really lets down the side —  even when compared against the slink-out-the-door, complete-cop-out ending of J. Michael Straczynski and Adam Hughes’ Dr. Manhattan series. The scripting  — as we’ve come, sadly, to, expect from Azzarello — is lazy, the dangling plotlines are “resolved” in a completely rushed and unpredictable-only-in-terms-of-their-ineptitude manner, and all in all, well, the book just plain sucks.

If you’ll recall, last time around things were finally starting to come together a bit — Rorschach had been captured by super-criminal Rawhead and his boys (again) and was being trussed up in preparation for a gruesome death (again) while the serial killer known as “The Bard” zeroed in on Rory’s only friend in the world, the Gunga Diner waitress he was all set to meet up for a dinner date. On top of all that, the lights went out in New York City as the infamous blackout of 1977  hit. Simple as it would be to bring all these disparate plot elements together in a semi-satisfying, if unambitious conclusion — Rorschach gets away, saves the girl in the nick of time and/or doesn’t but manages to kill “The Bard” anyway, and the lights come on — Azzarello can’t even pull that off. Oh, sure, Rorschach escapes from Rawhead’s clutches (although how he actually manages to do so is barely shown), the girl gets away from “The Bard” on her own (somehow — in this case they don’t even bother showing us how), and five years later, when “The Bard” gets outta the joynt, Rory busts into his apartment and kills him in an epliogue that completely lacks any sort of “payback”-style drama because, well, even though “The Bard” has been hanging around the outskirts of the story since the beginning, he never once tussled with the star of the book.

What does “Azz” take up the remaining pages of this scantily-scripted issue with, then, you may wonder? Some lame-brained, last-minute “twist” to the plot featuring Rawhead hitting the streets in Rorschach’s mask and getting himself killed — all of which is, as you’d be right to guess, about as stupid as it sounds.

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On the plus side, after the obvious deadline-rushed work of issues two and three, Lee Bermejo’s art improves here and is more or less back up to the standard he set in the book’s opening installment. His cover (shown atop this post) is pretty good, too, and Ivan Reis’ variant (shown above) is flat-out incredible. But pretty pictures alone can’t save this work, and somewhere I think Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons are probably shaking their heads.

Then again, I’m sure they had better since than to actually read this thing. Wish I could say the same for myself.

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Anyway, here we go — the long-delayed (it’s been something like two months since the last issue) answer to the question “what exactly did the Comedian do that had the other guy so freaked out last time around?” is finally here, and it’s about as surprising and unpredictable as, say, a Denny’s omelette — evidently, he committed some mass-scale, My Lai-ish massacre on innocent villagers in Viet Nam. Women, kids, all that.

Ya know — the kind of thing that was pretty much hinted at way back in Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen #2. At least give writer Brian Azzarello and artist J.G. Jones credit for consistency, then — this issue is every bit as pointless as all those which preceded it. “Azz,” as he is known to his hopefully dwindling legion of fans, throws in a last-second piece of supposed intrigue involving some machinations vis a vis Eddie Blake between the Nixon and Bobby Kennedy  camps — my best guess at this point is that Bobby never runs for president in the “Watchmen universe” and may indeed still be alive, but who really cares — but that’s some final-buzzer shoehorning that rings pretty hollow after four installments of nothing but useless flashback material that has, despite an admittedly promising start, managed to reveal exactly nothing new about one of Moore and Gibbons’ most interesting characters.

Honestly, it’s a pretty tight race at this point between OzymandiasRorschach, and Comedian for most redundant (and therefore useless) Before Watchmen min-series, but this one might hold a slight edge just because it’s also the most lazily scripted. At least over in Ozymandias Len Wein is determined to give us our money’s worth by drowning his plotless reverie in a sea of shamelessly purple prose. Azzarello can barely manage 20 words of script on most of his pages.

Shit, though, what am I complaining about? As hackneyed and pedestrian as his dialogue is, the less we have of it to deal with, the better.

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The variant covers by Jones and Gary Frank (respectively, as shown) aren’t too bad, I guess, nor is Jones’ interior art, but it’s all far short of being memorable or even involving enough to look at twice. Four bucks, four minutes, and Before Watchmen : Comedian #5 is firmly in your rear view mirror — and you aren’t even bothering with so much as a solitary backward glance; you’ve ( I sincerely hope) got better things to do. Heck, this book doesn’t even linger around long enough to fade into the distance — this is strictly “poof! It’s gone!” stuff.

So,  we’ve got one more to go with this series, and only five BW books remain in total across the board. And just in time, as far as I’m concerned — I’m running out of creative ways to say “this book sucked.” Hell, at this point I’m running out of uncreative ways to say it.

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First off, credit where it’s due — for the second time in three issues, artist Lee Bermejo has delivered one heck of a cool and inventive cover  (shown above — the variant, by Chip Kidd, pictured a paragraph or two down the road here, ain’t half-bad, either) for this series.

Unfortunately, all thought put into Before Watchmen : Rorschach #3 pretty much ends there, because once you open the book, it’s another ho-hum wanna-be-hard-boiled crime tale, with a pointless dose of unreconstituted fanfic of the most pathetically obvious sort thrown in (“what if Rorschach asked a girl on a date? Wouldn’t that be a fucking trip?”). As with Azzarello’s scripts for his decidedly lackluster Comedian mini-series, inspiration is completely absent from the proceedings and even the most basic workaday “noir”-type thriller would be decidedly preferable to the flat-out laziness on display here.

And when I say lazy, I do mean fucking lazy. The basic plot outline for this issue is almost a carbon-copy of the first —Rorschach gets set up for a nasty fall by the crime-boss villain of the book, Rawhead. Issue one showed the massive ass-whooping our friendly neighborhood vigilante nutcase took at the hands of Rawhead’s goons while this one leaves its inevitable arrival as a “cliffhanger,” but apart from that, the only difference between the main narrative thrusts in chapters one and three of this story is that here in three, the infamous New York City blackout of 1977 hits right as Rorschach is walking into the trap that’s been set for him. Oh, and as mentioned earlier, he asks Nancy the waitress out on a date.

In other words, Azzarello has thrown in a couple of cheap n’ handy gimmicks in the hope that you won’t notice that he’s got no new actual ideas on offer here — and while that sort of thing merely pisses me off when I’m reading his “work” over in Comedian, it’s almost tragic in this book because, even sleepwalking through his job as he is, it’s obvious that Azzarello has a solid handle on Rorschach’s character and understands both what makes him tick and how to write convincing narration and dialogue for him — two things he frankly struggles with when it comes to Eddie Blake. So “Azz” probably could, indeed, write a very good Rorschach story (as opposed to, say, a great one — we still need Alan Moore for that) — he’s just chosen not to.

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On the artistic side, Bermejo looks to be rushing things again. His illustration in the first ish was flat-out superb, and while it wasn’t enough make you forget Dave Gibbons by any stretch, it really captured the essence of 1970s Times Square sleaze. Since then, however, he looks to be pretty obviously drawing under deadline pressure, and his illustrations look rushed and sloppy.

This particular segment ends with the serial killer known as “The Bard,” who’s been lurking around  as a  background subplot  for no discernible reason up to now, being shoehorned into the story proper in what I’ve come to think of as  typical Azzarello fashion — namely, the most  obvious way possible. This series ends next month and you can pretty much tell how it’s all going to play out already. Try to contain your excitement, please.

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Well, after last time around, things really couldn’t get much worse, could they?

If you’ll recall — and even if you don’t — the third issue of Brian Azzarello and J.G. Jones’ Before Watchmen : Comedian is a book I had literally nothing good to say about whatsoever. Not only did it mark, in my mind, the low point (at least to date) of the entire BW enterprise, it was , no exaggeration, one of the very worst comics I have ever read in my life, period.  It’s pretty rough to imagine that the next  issue would lower the bar even further, and while I’ve learned never to underestimate the ability of a good many of these titles to be even more pointlessly lame than I imagined going in, I’m relieved — even pleased — to report that this book  has, at least for the time being, pleasantly interrupted this particular series’ post-debut issue downward spiral.

Following Eddie Blake’s rather public meltdown on the mean streets of Watts the last time we saw him, it seems that Uncle Sam has decided that the best place for their top psycho-for-hire is back in the jungles of Viet Nam, and while his first go-’round there in issue two was a rather listless and bog-standard affair, this time around scribe Brian Azzarello has taken the time to actually develop some supporting characters for the Comedian to interact with (particularly a couple of local kids that Blake is teaching to play cards, among other things) and has even gone to the extent of having his title character do something actually interesting, which is always a plus in any comic.

And what is this interesting thing he has him do, you ask? Well, he has him drop acid. We don’t know how it’s all going to play out yet — only that it ends bad — but hey, between this and Hollis Mason getting high in the final issue of Silk Spectre, at least the various BW books are providing equal time to the onerous and predictable anti-drug message presented in the first two issues of Len Wein and Jae Lee’s Ozymandias.

The other notable thing about about what Azzarello’s done — finally! — with this fourth issue  is that the story actually builds on preceding events to show some sort of character trajectory for Eddie Blake going on. Even if it’s a rather simple tale of one guy’s gradual mental breakdown, and it arrives pretty late in the day (after the series’ halfway point), at least it’s there — which, again, is more than you can say for Ozymandias, which is still stuck in basic “career-recap” mode.

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To be sure, Before Watchmen : Comedian #4 (variant covers this time around by Jones and Brian Stelfreeze, respectively, as shown — is that getting to be my most predictable line or what?) is still far from a great comic . In fact, it’s very barely what I would generously term as a good one.  J.G. Jones’ art still does absolutely nothing for me, and while I really can’t point to anything actively bad about it, for the most part it just strikes me as being — well, kind of there, you know what I mean? As for Azzarello, he still has a tendency to mask out-and-out laziness as an “economy of words” or pseudo-“gritty” realism, and the fact of the matter is that biggest knock on this particular segment of his little six-parter is that not a whole lot actually happens in it. But hey, after that absolutely horrendous third issue, a story that’s  competently enough executed for the most part, even if it’s still miles away from the work of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons on even their worst day, at least feels like a step in the right direction. Even if it’s just a baby step.

As Walter Kovacs, aka Rorschach, himself might say : “Hurm.”

We’re now at the halfway point of this four-issue series and it’s safe to say that I’m just flat-out unsure what to make of it. In this issue, our favorite vigilante-in-a-pattern-shifting-mask winds up in the hospital on the heels of the ass-kicking he took last time around, runs an 18-wheeler into some small-time dope dealers (or maybe they’re pimps — or both), eschews the only female contact he’s probably had in decades, and starts in on a new mission of getting even with the crime lord who left him for dead in the sewers, a crime lord who, incidentally, has now gotten wind that leaving Rorschach for dead is a far cry from making sure he well and truly is  dead.

It’s certainly every bit as bloody and gritty as you’d expect (and then some), but it in no way surprises the reader or delivers anything you might call even close to being unexpected, so in that respect it’s a fairly gutless and pedestrian piece of work. Which isn’t to say it’s bad by any stretch of the imagination, just that it’s all so highly predictable. Writer Brian Azzarello seems determined to pretty much just, as the Brits would say, “give the punters what they want,” and leave it at that. Which is, clearly and self-evidently, not what Watchmen as envisioned by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons was all about. So it’s fair to say I’m a bit torn on the overall effectiveness of this book — and its relegation of its serial-killer subplot involving a psycho called “The Bard” doesn’t help matters much, either.

Another thing that doesn’t work as well in this series’ second installment is Lee Bermejo’s art. It’s okay, but it looks rushed and semi-sloppy compared compared to issue number one, where eye for detail for was really a strong suit. I think Bermejo still gives a shit, don’t get me wrong, and most of this issue looks good enough, but it lacks some of the almost-photo-realism we got last time, which is something of a bummer. Ah well.

In summation, then, Before Watchmen : Rorschach #2 (variant covers, as shown, by Bermejo and Jock, respectively) is just — alright. I can’t point to anything out-and-out lousy about it, but it seems content to rest of its laurels and just deliver more or less exactly the type of thing we’re expecting. That might make for involving enough and interesting enough reading, but gosh, is it too much for me to wish for something a little bit inspired somewhere in the midst of this whole Before Watchmen project somewhere?

Hurm, indeed.

I admit that it’s been a long time since I followed any comic series from either of the “Big Two” publishers, so maybe this kind of thing is a more common phenomenon these days than I realize, but I swear to God, I’ve never seen the quality of a book fall as far as fast as Brian Azzarello and J.G. Jones’ Before Watchmen : Comedian miniseries. In the space of three short issues we’ve gone from promising to pointless to downright embarrassing, and frankly at this point continuing to follow this endeavor is getting downright painful. I almost don’t know where to begin the litany of complaints here, so let’s just go the usual dry nuts-n’-bolts recap route and hopefully I can get this thing finished without actively reliving too much of the actual experience of reading this pablum in my mind before I’m finished here. In other words, this this one’s gonna be quick, because I just plain can’t really stand to think much about this book.

If you’ll recall, last time around Eddie Blake, aka The Comedian, was dispatched to Viet Nam, got in a lazily-scripted gun battle at night, and then headed off with some other hapless souls into “the shit” at the end of the issue. Like I said, pretty pointless.

So where do we pick things up in this third installment? Do we go into “the shit” with ’em and maybe see how the war changed Blake and made him into an ever bigger amoral, sociopathic asshole than he was going in? Nope. That might threaten to actually be interesting, and we can’t have any of that. Instead, we’re dropped off in Hawaii, where Eddie’s trying out some of the lamest sexual innuendo you’ve ever seen on a waitress at a beachfront watering hole. I swear, Ron Jeremy wouldn’t even try this kind of shit with a straight face. Not that it stops her from leaving with him at the end, because women are basically nothing but interchangeable pieces of meat in this book. But in the 18  or so pages between that absurd start and even more absurd end, we are literally regaled with more or less everything a book that wants to be taken seriously, as this one obviously still does, shouldn’t do under any circumstances.

First off, Blake gets a call at the bar in Hawaii from Bobby Kennedy, who’s quite clearly displeased with how his favorite mercenary recently went about some rather dubious business in Watts, California. So you know what’s bound to happen next — it’s flashback time. We see The Comedian returning to the US, his actual adventures of any import in ‘Nam never expounded upon, and he’s greeted by some protesters upon his return, one of whom clearly reminds him of his estranged (to put it kindly, seeing as how she doesn’t even know who her real old man is at this point) daughter, Laurie. That particular scene is almost involving for a moment, but then all is shattered when the flower-power girl in question is — what? Well, it turns out she’s hit by a tomato pelted at her from some knuckle-dragging right-wing neanderthal, but Jones depicts it so fucking poorly that you think she might have been shot before flipping the page over. Anyway, it’s a decently-scripted little vignette, but so ineptly handled visually that any and all dramatic potential is lost.

From there, believe it or not, things only get worse. Eddie heads into Watts and, as you’d expect, ends up playing a key role in redirecting the notorious riots there from a genuine political uprising into a pointless looting spree. How does he manage this feat? Get this — he shows up with a yellow smiley-face grin painted on his face (I guess straight-up Al Jolson-style blackface would have been too unsubtle even for Azzarello, though the end result is essentially the same), scratches his armpits and “ooks” and “eeks” like monkey, shoots up the windows of some local shops so the folks will start helping themselves to TVs and stereos and shit, torches a throwaway sofa and pushes a black kid into it (what happens to the kid after that is never shown, but I hope he gets the fuck out of there with nothing but a burned shirt because nobody deserves to lose their life in a story this stupid), and then — wait for it, wait for it — throws dogshit at the chief of police.

So let’s just take a minute and consider the world according to Brian Azzarello, at least as presented in Before Watchmen : Comedian #3 (variant covers, as shown, by Jones and John Paul Leon, respectively) — the Watts rioters, who really did have about a million and one legitimate political grievances, were so stupid that one guy in overtly racist facepaint who commits heinous race-baiting crimes right in front of their faces and acts like a fucking monkey while doing so is somehow persuasive enough to get them all to start looting local businesses rather than revolt against the powers that were oppressing them simply by shooting up some store windows and saving his biggest insult not for them, but for the cops. Message? African Americans are stupid, and furthermore, they’re actually stupid and greedy ‘cuz at the end of the day they just want a bunch of electronics and shit for free. How DC’s editorial staff let this thing get published in this form is, frankly, beyond me. If I’m working DC editorial and I have a writer hand me a racist pile of nonsense like this, I’m sending it back to him with one simple note : “complete rewrite or you’re fired.”

Which is not to say that The Comedian, as portrayed by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons in the original Watchmen miniseries, didn’t do worse than this. He shot a woman pregnant with his own child, for christ’s sake! But it all comes down to authorial intent. Moore and Gibbons quite clearly were out to show us what a bastard Blake was — here, this much-less-thoughtfully-handled meltdown comes after two issues where Azzarello and Jones spend a fair amount of time essentially rehabbing, or at least softening up and humanizing, The Comedian’s image! All of which is enough to make you wonder — if Eddie Blake’s not, according to Azzarello and Jones, quite the monster we thought, then are they tacitly saying that this kind of racist behavior on his part really isn’t that big a deal?

It’s tempting to say yes, but you know what? That would require a level of thought about what they’re doing that I just don’t think went into this thing. Leaving Jones out of it since he’s just drawing the script he’s given in exchange for his page rate, and instead focusing all of our well-deserved contempt on Azzarello, I’m actually going to let him off the hook a bit — putridly racist as this script is, I don’t think it “proves” he’s racist on a concscious level at all : just that he’s so fucking lazy that he can’t be bothered worrying about how all this might come across, and DC’s editors are so sheltered from reality that they didn’t have enough smarts to nip this thing in the bud before publishing it.

None of which actually excuses the finished product here — it is the crap that it is — I’m merely trying to put my finger on the underlying motivations as accurately as possible, which have more to do with just churning out product, regardless of said product’s actual quality or message, than they do with openly promoting retrograde, horseshit racial attitudes. Azzarello just flat-out doesn’t care enough about his readers’ sensibilities to go beyond shock value for its own sake (which may be the only way he knows how to write stuff designed to shock, anyway) regardless of how lots of folks might perceive it, and DC’s “editors” don’t care enough about what they’re putting out under the auspices of their corporate logo to stop him. All of which begs the question — if the people making and publishing this book don’t give a flying a fuck about what’s in its pages, then why should readers, either?

Offensive on every level — artistically, culturally, politically, and even economically — Before Watchmen : Comedian #3 is well and truly one of the absolute worst comics I’ve ever read in my life.