29 January 2013

contemplating before watchmen

Reading list: 
Before Watchmen: Minutemen # 1-6 (Darwyn Cooke)
Before Watchmen: Silk Spectre # 1-4 (Darwyn Cooke/ Amanda Conner)
Before Watchmen: Comedian # 1-3 (yea, I know..) (Brian Azzarello/ J.G. Jones
Before Watchmen: Rorschach # 1-3 (Brian Azzarello/ Lee Bermejo - #4's out next month)
Before Watchmen: Moloch # 1-2 (JMS/ Eduardo Risso)

So after all the outrage and the people making spectacular asses of themselves (and note I'm not specifying a side of the argument), Before Watchmen is now drawing to a close.  The project hit some delays midway through, and they've kept adding stuff to it, but the event (or at least my participation in it) appears to be winding down.  I've no idea how it did commercially - OK, I suspect - and I really have no interest in revisiting the creators' "rights" issues that go along with it.  By now surely everyone's said their piece one way or another.

I am interested in looking back at the actual comics themselves, though, or at least the ones I read.  A little context: I love Watchmen.  I think it's great but I do not have the near-total recall of it that some folks seem to have.  I've read it multiple times but have not gone back to it in about five years.  So I remember most of the characters and the bigger points of the plot - my takeaway from it was less about the characters themselves and more about the larger points it was making, about both superheroes and comics in general.  To me Watchmen is a complete story, and there was never a single time between when I originally read it and 2012 that I clamored for more Watchmen material or wondered about the characters outside of that specific story.  To me there are no questions left unanswered by Watchmen and thus no *need* to revisit those characters.

With that said, there were several of the Before Watchmen books that seemed interesting to me, entirely based on who the creative teams were.  I have no particular interest in Silk Spectre, but a new Darwyn Cooke/ Amanda Connor comic?  Yes, sign me up please.  Likewise, I did not even remember who Moloch was - but I know very well who Eduardo Risso is.  So I ended up trying out five of the miniseries, and sticking with four of them until the end.  I dropped Comedian after #3 because I just didn't like it all that much.  I didn't *dislike* it necessarily but it wasn't grabbing me.  Maybe if there's a 99 cent sale sometime down the road....   anyway, I enjoyed the other four I read, to varying degrees.

Additional context: none of the Before Watchmen books, to me, are "part" of Watchmen.  DC's branding of the series implies, I'm sure intentionally, that this stuff is all one story.  These books are "prequels", supposedly meant to add something to the original work.  I reject this entirely.  These are different stories using characters introduced in Watchmen, and set in the Watchmen Universe.  Yes, I know Watchmen wasn't conceived as a "universe", but that doesn't mean it cannot be one.  Characters move outside the context of the works in which they were introduced all the time, sometimes with the author's blessing and/or participation, and sometimes not.  That they do so, though, does not add to the original work, any more than "Batman: War Games" is somehow part of "Batman: Year One" simply because they share characters and/or continuity.

And in this particular case, there's really nothing about these books that emulates or adds to Watchmen, from a story or a craft perspective.  For the most part, the books eschew the now-famous 9-panel grid of Watchmen.  None of the art styles look anything like Dave Gibbons', and none of the writers write with anything that sounds like Alan Moore's voice.  This was probably a smart decision, as an attempt to mimic Moore & Gibbons would surely have failed.  There's no alternative attempt at innovation, though.  These are, for the most part, slickly produced books, but they don't say anything about the superhero genre or comics in general.  They don't advance the artform in any way.  At best, they are well-done superhero comics about familiar characters (and also Moloch) that also happen to include swearing.

Which is okay with me.  I know it's not okay with some others who feel it waters down Watchmen in some way.  It doesn't to me, again any more than War Games affects my enjoyment of Year One.  As I perused these books, DC's attempts to brand it as part of Watchmen more or less slipped my mind.  "Before Watchmen" became its own brand, and a brand that I associate with quality because I was (mostly) liking the books.

To some extent, I think, a good story provides its own justification.  I think this event provided us with several good stories and one really good one (Silk Spectre).  None of them are on the level of Watchmen, but then again I didn't expect any of them to be.  Very few comics, period, are as good as Watchmen, and I refuse to judge these by that impossible standard just because they have the word "Watchmen" on the cover.  I appreciate the appeal of the retort that it would have been preferable to tell these same stories with all-new characters - and Id've been fine with that too - but that's not what exists.  I'm not going to judge these books against some other hypothetical book I'd rather have seen, either.  That's criticizing an apple for not being an orange.  (And of course, I do realize we're skirting back up against the creator rights argument here, and I appreciate the fact that, for some folks, that's where the analysis ends - but it's not where it stops for me.)

There was never any need for more stories about Silk Spectre, and there was no one clamoring for such a thing, regardless of what DC reps say in a press release or interview.  But could a story about a younger version of that character, struggling to find her independence and her place in the world, be entertaining?  Damn skippy.

As to the individual books:  Minutemen was more or less the flagship, as far as I could tell.  The comparisons to New Frontier are inevitable.  Cooke opened with an uneven issue that was way too heavy on exposition, then settled in nicely beginning with #2.  It's darker and less optimistic in tone than New Frontier, as perhaps is fitting in this universe.  It's nowhere near as dark as Rorschach, which is pretty much exactly what you'd expect.  It's super-dark and grimy and dirty and nihilistic, but it's a well-done example of all those things.  Bermejo just killed it on the art, too.  In fact I wonder if that might've been the tipping factor between Rorschach and Comedian, the latter of which had good art but not blow-you-away good art.  Azzarello wrote both books in a similar style, to my mind, so my more favorable reaction to Rorschach might've been a function of the art.  (By the way, this post owes spellcheck a huge debt of gratitude, as I cannot spell "Rorschach" to save my life.)

Moloch was much more straightforwardly straightforward than the others.  There's really nothing particularly noteworthy about the story - it's competently told but nothing you haven't seen before.  I am a huge Risso mark, though, so that was a must-buy for me, and it was cool to see Risso collaborating with someone other than Azzarello (or Carlos Trillo).  I quite liked the second issue in particular, even if it was a bit continuity-pr0nish.  I've gushed over Silk Spectre before and won't repeat myself - easily my favorite of the books I read.

So bottom line, I was pretty pleased with this endeavor, and I actually would like to see more Before Watchmen books, provided the quality remained high.  I'm a little sorry to see it end, which I would not have expected given the size of the event.  Usually by the time I get to the end of stuff like this I'm past ready to move on to the next thing, but not so here.  I'm not sure how much more there could possibly be left to mine here, but then again Id've said that before Before Watchmen began at all.  I like this world.  I enjoyed revisiting it, even in a way that has nothing to do with the original work.

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