Before Watchmen: Comedian #1, DC Comics.
Before Watchmen: Nite Owl #1, DC Comics.
By Sam Hurwitt
I thought I was out. I really did. Last week I said I probably wouldn’t be picking up any more issues of the umpteen zillion Before Watchmen prequel miniseries that DC Comics is flooding the comics market with, because of (1) my ethical distaste for the whole enterprise (which the company undertook despite Watchmen writer Alan Moore’s vocal opposition), (2) my feeling that Watchmen is a self-contained, fully explored story that can’t be enhanced in any way from prequels, sequels and spinoffs, and (3) my finding so far that the first couple of issues I picked up out of morbid curiosity and because I’m a fan of the creative teams assigned to them—the first issues of Before Watchmen: Minutemen and Before Watchmen: Silk Spectre—I’ve found underwhelming or off-putting in one way or another. I’d add that (4) the fact that the series debuting last week starred the Comedian seemed like more of a reason to call it quits than to read on.
The Comedian may be my least favorite character from Watchmen. You’re not supposed to like him. He’s the dead body the series starts with, and good riddance to him. In the 1940s Edward Blake was a brutish jerk (and on at least one occasion, a rapist), and by the 1960s he’d become a black-ops government agent who took ghoulish pleasure in his work. Still, the distorted grin that artist J.G. Jones builds into his leather mask (unlike the plain rectangular mouth hold that cocreator Dave Gibbons gave him) seems to be missing the point. There was never anything funny about the Comedian. He’s called that in Watchmen because he’s the guy who “gets the joke” about how meaningless life is.
He’s loosely based on the Peacemaker, an old Charlton Comics character who was “a man who loves peace so much that he is willing to fight for it!” The Peacemaker was definitely one of the company’s lesser characters, and DC’s various attempts to make him take off as a character after it acquired the Charlton stable in the 1980s never really went anywhere.
DC was on its fourth version of the Peacemaker before its recent “New 52” reboot, and as far as I know he has yet to be reintroduced in the new continuity. In any case, despite his professed love of peace, the Peacemaker was always an extremely violent guy, and Alan Moore took a no less ironic tack in naming a cold-blooded killer the Comedian.
If the leering, bloody bondage-masked cover wasn’t enough to put me off, the whole idea of the Comedian having his own series gives me a bad taste in my mouth—and that’s on top of the bad taste in my mouth that the entire Before Watchmen project gives me in the first place.
Written by Brian Azzarello (100 Bullets, First Wave, Wonder Woman) with art by J.G. Jones (Final Crisis, Marvel Boy), Before Watchmen: Comedian doesn’t fall into the trap that Darwyn Cooke did with his first issue of Before Watchmen: Minutemen, of simply fleshing out what we already knew from the original 1986 graphic novel without adding anything new. Like Cooke and Amanda Conner’s Silk Spectre comic, Comedian takes what we already know about the character and takes it in a different direction that feels a little at odds with the source material.
In essence, the first issue of Comedian is all about how much Eddie Blake loves John F. Kennedy. That may come as news to anyone who’s read the original Watchmen, where the Comedian implies that he had something to do with JFK’s assassination. Nixon is still president in the 1980s of Watchmen, and in a flashback there’s some lighthearted cocktail chatter about Woodward and Bernstein being found dead in a garage. “I’m clean, guys,” Blake says (not very convincingly, I might add). “Just don’t ask where I was when I heard about J.F.K. “
Where he was, it turns out in Azzarello’s story, was busting Moloch, the same supervillain whose apartment he broke into to vent his sorrows shortly before his death in Watchmen. Here the Comedian bursts in ready for a fight, only to find Moloch weeping in front of the TV because the president’s just been shot, and the two foes commiserate together. It’s odd; we’ve still never had a chance to actually see Moloch do anything villainous. We know he was once a criminal mastermind of some kind, but in Watchmen he’s just a terrified ex-con retiree who has to deal with middle-of-the-night visits from his old foes, and here he’s just some guy blubbering in front of the TV.
Anyway, it could be a touching moment, but it rings strangely false, like the much-derided image of Doctor Doom weeping because of the 9/11 attacks. This notion that the world stops when a tragic event happens and even the worst of men questions what it’s all for feels overdone, and much at odds with the Comedian we know.
But boy, does Azzarello work hard to set it up. Blake doesn’t just love JFK; he’s seemingly his best friend. The comic starts with him playing football with the Kennedy brothers, then having a quiet drink with Jackie where she coolly asks him to kill Marilyn Monroe. And it would be just plain ungentlemanly to refuse.
Best known as a cover artist, J.G. Jones has an attractive style with a great sense of layout and some good likenesses, but for the most part it’s not too dynamic, and he doesn’t bother with any tributes to Gibbons’s style. Also, it’s kind of funny that here are only a few panels in the whole book where Blake doesn’t have half a cigar in his mouth like a pacifier. The best thing about the art is the coloring and use of light, which really helps set scene and mood.
So does the comic add something new to the story of the Comedian? Sure. Anything good? Nah. It all feels pretty forced—the jolly merriment with the Kennedy boys, the covert skullduggery, the Day the World Changed pablum. It’s not as over-the-top carnage-celebrating as I’d feared it might be, because that wouldn’t have surprised me in the slightest, but it all feels sort of trite. I’d say we’ll see where it goes, but I really don’t see the point. I imagine the loss of his bestest friend in the whole wide world leads Blake to become more nihilistic than ever, and we’ll probably head off to ’Nam pretty soon. Anyway, I doubt my morbid fascination with this project will extend to picking up a second issue.
The first issue of Before Watchmen: Nite Owl takes the relatively straightforward tack of fleshing out what we had already gleaned in Watchmen about how Dan Dreiberg became the second Nite Owl. (The character is based on the Blue Beetle, a Golden Age hero who had gone from Fox Features Syndicate to Charlton Comics before landing at DC. He had also already gone through two generations, as the character DC acquired was really the one who’d taken up the mantle from his dead predecessor.)
We already knew that Dan had grown up as the original Nite Owl’s biggest fan, had a genius for gadgetry and a load of inherited cash, and was hand-picked as Hollis Mason’s successor when he retired as Nite Owl in the 1960s. In fact, Dan Dreiberg is one of the characters from Watchmen that we know best, one of the graphic novel’s primary protagonists, at least in his retired, somewhat pudgy 1980s incarnation, but in Nite Owl we get to know him as a teenager. It’s written by Babylon 5 creator J. Michael Straczyinski, who’s been the most defiant defender of the Before Watchmen project, sometimes to the point of boorishness.
I’ve liked some of JMS’s work in comics, such as the obscure 1940s Marvel heroes revival series The Twelve, his Thor run, and even some of his Spider-Man run before he wrote the horribly executed, editorially-mandated undoing of Peter Parker’s marriage to Mary Jane Watson. I haven’t yet liked any of his work for DC, aside from a few of his team-ups in The Brave and the Bold. So far at DC he’s been best known for having Superman give up superheroing to go for a long walk across the country and for turning Wonder Woman into an amnesiac street vigilante whom no one else remembered either. He also worked on some of DC’s reimagining of the old Archie Comics heroes (ironically, the same heroes Alan Moore originally had in mind for Watchmen before DC suggested using the Charlton heroes instead) during the brief period a few years ago that DC had licensed them. He’s also notorious for abandoning projects before completing his narrative arcs—both his Superman and Wonder Woman stories were turned over to other writers to complete, and the 12-issue monthly miniseries The Twelve went on hiatus for three and a half years between issues 8 and 9 while JMS focused on screenplays and moved on to DC work. He’s writing both the Nite Owl and Dr. Manhattan miniseries, so I can only assume all his scripts were finished before DC even announced the thing, just to be on the safe side.
The first issue of Nite Owl is an origin story, and JMS paints a picture of young Dan Dreiberg that you can see growing up to be the Dan we know, with his altruistic enthusiasm tempered by insecurity and sadness. He’s a nerd, essentially, a Peter Parker with money, who collects Nite Owl memorabilia. But JMS takes some significant liberties as well. Most notably, this is the story of how Dreiberg became Nite Owl, and how it happens is completely different from the way we’re told it happened in Watchmen. In an except from Hollis Mason’s memoir in the back pages of Watchmen, it’s revealed that Dan wrote the retired Mason a letter, asking if he could take up the abandoned mantle of Nite Owl. JMS instead takes a page from the origin story of the third Robin, Tim Drake, and has Dan track the still-active Nite Owl back to his “Owl Cave” in hopes of becoming the hero’s kid sidekick. He also adds an abusive father, a touch that I think works pretty well.
This is actually one of the better-written first issues so far, like Silk Spectre but not quite so jarringly at odds with the tone of the original. It feels very much like a standard-issue superhero story, and a Robin story at that, but it’s a pretty solid one. There are a couple of running gags about “free lunch” and Rorschach’s trademark “Hurm” that are just so-so, and a bit about feeling a sense of destiny at first sight of Silk Spectre is somewhat clumsy foreshadowing. But I do like the incredibly dorky catchphrases coined for the original Nite Owl, with civilians greeting him with cries of “Hoot!” and “Owl justice!” It’s ludicrous, but it works nicely as a send-up of happy shiny Golden Age heroes, especially when set against the casual cruelty of his home life.
The art, with comics veteran Joe Kubert inking his son Andy’s pencils, is one of the best things about the issue, with a few nods to Gibbons’s Watchmen in style. It eschews the tight grid that Gibbons used to such striking effect, but it does observe a nicely symmetrical page layout, and the elder Kubert’s deeply textured, almost woodcut-like inks build a terrifically effective melancholy mood. I don’t know that Nite Owl #1 makes me especially curious to keep following the series, because I already know what happens in the end and there are no unanswered questions from Watchmen that I feel are particularly worth answering, but it’s a pretty solid first issue, and that’s not nothing. (In fact, like all of these single issues, it’s $3.99.)
Each issue continues two pages of Len Wein and John Higgins’s pirate horror backup story The Curse of the Crimson Corsair, each installment of which is too short to build much interest in itself, but it uses the serial format effectively in that each last panel is a mini-cliffhanger (which is another way of saying it’s one damn thing after another), and Higgins’s art especially creates a looming sense of dread. I don’t really see it playing against or paralleling the main story in any way, like the pirate comics did in Watchmen, and in fact it feels like it’s only here because there was a pirate comic in the original so maybe there should be one here too, even if they have no particular idea of how to integrate it. But taken on its own it’s not bad.
From here I’m not going to make any promises about whether or not I’ll be picking up next week’s Ozymandias #1 or any of the other first issues (Dr. Manhattan, Rorschach). My curiosity’s gotten the better of me so far. At this point I don’t feel hooked into any of these series enough to make me that curious about the second issues—Silk Spectre comes closest, just because it’s kind of charming and I’m really perplexed by where it’s going in the short term—but like I say, no promises.