Wednesday, July 04, 2012

“Before Watchmen” First Phase (DC)


Reviewed by Abhinav Jain

My prior experience with Watchmen is limited to the 2009 film adaptation. I remember that it was an extremely weird experience, as I had no prior familiarity with it and I was rather confused for the whole of it. My friends helped fill in a few blanks later during dinner and then that was that. As you can no doubt tell, I was not motivated to go pick up Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ graphic novel and read the source material.

Recently, however, I’ve been getting back into comics after a rather long break, and when I heard that DC was planning a prequel phase, the Before Watchmen series, I was mildly curious. I like the idea of prequels, especially for things like these. To give but one example, Tolkien’s Silmarillion is one of my favourite novels ever; although it is almost entirely prequel stories set in Middle-Earth and in Valinor and our heroes of the original trilogy barely feature in it.

So when the Before Watchmen comics started releasing last month, I picked them up one by one: the first issues of Minutemen, Silk Spectre, Comedian and Nite Owl. I still somewhat prevaricated on this, and didn’t read them right away as I had some other reading commitments to get out of the way first.

Silk Spectre #1


Writers: Darwyn Cooke, Amanda Connor | Artist: Amanda Connor

“Oh sweetie, you’re too young to hate. Wait until you’re older and the world gives you a good reason. Trust me, it won’t let you down.”

When I did start them, Silk Spectre #1 was my first pick. Silk Spectre #1 is written by Darwyn Cooke and Amanda Connor, writers I’m not familiar with at all. I hadn’t even heard of their names before this. And since I barely even remembered what happened in the movie, I went in with almost no expectations, prepared to be surprised. I have to say that I do rather like this first issue.

The very first thing that struck me was the artwork. Amanda Connor has done the lion’s share of all the art panels in this issue and has done double-duty for the cover art as well with Paul Moments. From the moment the issue loads up, it is the cover that speaks to me. Laurie’s pose, for me, is about that feeling of standing up against the world and showing that you are stronger than you get credit for. Then there are the headshots from some of the other characters in the Watchmen-verse, as well as young-Laurie. Not much to go on for an artist, but they are quite detailed in and of themselves, and each character has a unique expression. And then there are the three variant covers, each of which is spectacular. Any of them could have been the front cover and I’d have picked this issue up all the same.


The art style for the rest of the comic itself is reminiscent of, to quote David Griffin of InkHero, “60s Archie style”. And that makes sense, too, since that is roughly the time period the issue is set in. Of course, it’s not as small-scale or sharp as that of Archie but it does evoke that impression. As an echo of the cover, each art panel shows detailed expressions for each character who are themselves drawn with a clear eye to keeping them all distinct. No two character faces are the same. It’s a small point, granted, but I’ve read plenty of comics where the artist and the colourist really screw that up. Paul Mounts’ colours for this issue are somewhat muted but they are certainly vibrant enough, and by the last few pages, he uses a bigger palette and goes more colourful, matching the narrative itself.


The script is a rather typical story of a teenage kid rebelling and being generally unhappy with her life, as she feels caged and limited by life. Both Cooke and Connor are able to convey Laurie’s frustrations really well, and you can connect with the character on that level. The same can be said for Laurie’s mother, the original Silk Spectre. Her own frustrations with having such a strong-willed daughter who can’t quite grasp the harsh realities of her life were portrayed with just as much conviction. The character motivations are clear and things are logical from point A-to-B-to-C and ultimately to Z.

As it stands, I really liked this issue and I will certainly be keeping up with it for future issues. I remember that I liked Laurie’s character in the movie and that informs part of my positive impression of Silk Spectre #1.


Comedian #1


Writer: Brian Azzarello | Artist: J.G. Jones

“I’m a funny guy…”

Next up was Comedian #1, written by Brian Azzarello. My one and only experience with Azzarello’s work is DC’s Wonder Woman New 52 relaunch. That particular series has started off rather well itself and, while I have quite a few issues with #10, I’ll be sticking with it. I liked Azzarello’s work and so I moved in on this issue with high expectations in comparison to Silk Spectre #1.

And I was rather rudely disappointed.

All I remember of Eddie Blake from the movie is a certain indiscretion and the beginning of the movie. I was expecting a lot of meaty stuff with this issue, and some rather explosive action to boot. Sadly, none of that was provided. The issue starts off with Eddie playing football with the Kennedys and then moves on to Jackie Kennedy flirting with him when the two of them are alone. From that moment on I was put off by the whole thing.


None of it really made any kind of sense. And this continued on through the last page. I was utterly lost with the narrative. I kept expecting a moment where things would look up and I’d be hooked, but that moment never came. And that’s a shame, really, since this issue had quite a lot of potential, given that Eddie Blake/Comedian is one of the darker characters of the Watchmen-verse. Instead, it is all just boring.

The art, by J.G. Jones and colourist Alex Sinclair, didn’t speak to me either. It certainly didn’t match what I saw in Silk Spectre #1. Another disappointment. The colours and the details were there, sure, but none of it created any kind of mood or atmosphere. They were just bland, simply put.


Although I do have to say that one of the variant covers, a side-shot of Eddie in his costume with a cigar in one hand and a shotgun in another, was really cool. This one was by Jim Lee and Scott Williams, and they did a great job with it. The other covers were just as bland as the comic itself.

Overall, Comedian is not a series that I feel compelled to continue reading, and will most definitely be giving it a pass. “First impressions are last impressions”, and Comedian #1 failed that test.


Minutemen #1


Writers: Darwyn Cooke | Artists: Darwyn Cooke

“Little did we know that poor boy would lead to the end of us all.”

Considering that the Twitter grapevine told me this was a rather well-received issue, and as I’d already liked Cooke’s work with Connor on Silk Spectre, I once again went in with some high (though not too high) expectations. Comedian had killed off some of my enthusiasm by this point.


I was pleasantly surprised by this title. Once again, it was the art that spoke to me. As Connor did with Silk Spectre, so too has Darwyn Cooke pulled double duty here for the primary cover as well as internal artwork. Combined with Phil Noto’s colours, Minutemen #1 is a very satisfying visual experience that hooks you in all the way. The style is very clean and vibrant, and reminds me quite strongly of the art and graphics in the various DC animated shows. There is that light feel to it that was present in Superman: The Animated Series, and at times it also mimics the gritty feel of Batman: The Animated Series, although it is never quite as dark.

Combined with the great art, Cooke’s narration is very upbeat throughout. This is also unlike the other first issues, in that this is a collection of vignettes about each of the superheroes of the group that would later become the Minutemen. They are presented in the form of remembrances by the retired Hollis Mason (aka Nite Owl), as he thinks about his autobiography and of his place with the rest of the team. The best of these were with Ursula (aka The Silhouette), Sally Jupiter (aka Silk Spectre) and Hooded Justice.


There’s something very primal about each of these characters as Cooke portrays them, and I certainly came to either fear them – as with Hooded Justice – or become best friends (of sorts) – as with Silk Spectre. His portrayals make them all approachable and while I can’t compare to the original work by Moore/Gibbons as I’ve not yet read it, I have to say this is truly great work.

The mood and the atmosphere that were missing from Comedian are here in spades. From start to finish, I really enjoyed the writing and the visual scenery. In light of that, I am going to be picking up Minutemen #2 as soon as it is available. If Cooke can keep this up, then I’ll be adding him to my Favourite Writers list pretty soon.


Nite Owl #1


Writers: J. Michael Straczynski | Artists: Andy Kubert & Joe Kubert

“The hero known to the public only as Nite Owl announced his retirement today.”

J. Michael Straczynski’s Nite Owl #1 tells the story of the character’s “future” as the first Nite Owl, Hollis Mason, retires and Dan Dreiberg steps in to assume the crime fighter’s identity. JMS is another comics writer I’m unfamiliar with, although I’m given to understand that he has written one of the most popular Superman storylines ever, Earth One [I really enjoyed it – Stefan], which I’m rather keen to get my hands on if I can. So far, it’s not on Comixology, which is a shame.


Anyhoo... I actually found myself enjoying this issue. Nite Owl is another character I barely remember from the movie, other than him being some kind of a knock-off Batman (incidentally, Scott Snyder notes in his ongoing Batman series that Owls and Bats are mortal enemies!). JMS adds quite a bit of background to the character and shows why he became Nite Owl, what motivated him to take that step and why he was infatuated with the superhero to begin with. The character history loosely mimics that of Laurie’s from the movie, but I didn’t have any problems with it. The events are loosely connected and there is sufficient meat there to really differentiate them both.

The art (pencils by Andy Kubert, inks by Joe Kubert, and colours by Brad Anderson), was decent. It was just about on par with Silk Spectre and Minutemen. The one thing I didn’t like about it though was that in a lot of the panels, the characters have too many “lines” on their bodies. I’m not sure if that’s a valid criticism per se, but it is pretty major throughout. I suppose that’s just Andy Kuberts’ style. One thing that’s pretty apparent throughout is that Anderson has used black a LOT for his colour palette. It lends the panels a rather dark, shadowy feel. That, along with the hard-set to the expressions of most characters, gives the entire comic a heavy, gritty feel. For the best, I suppose.


This is the only Before Watchmen comic so far for which I’ve liked all the covers, the primary and the variants alike. Kudos to all the artists who worked on these four covers, it’s really great work. My favourite is the primary cover by the Kuberts/Anderson and the second variant by Jim Lee and Scott Williams. Those two have done a great job so far with all their variant covers.

Overall, JMS has done a decent job with this first issue, and while I’m a little put off by some of the time jumps, I do get why that was done. It all still holds together. I will at least be getting the next issue for this one to see how JMS handles the next thread in the story.


The Curse of The Crimson Corsair

BeforeWatchmen-CrimsonCorsairEach of the issues has a backup story written by Len Wein and illustrated by John Higgins, called The Curse of The Crimson Corsair. It’s a series of 2-page short comics about adventure on the High Seas in the late 17th/early 18th century, and involves pirates, curses, and navy men. This has very much a monochromatic colour palette and is somewhat of a horror story. I’m not sure I like the incredibly small instalments, but all-in-all, I do quite like the idea.


In it’s entirety, the first wave of Before Watchmen has been a rather mixed bag, but largely positive thanks to the great work by Darwyn Cooke and Amanda Connor, as well as all the artists. I think there’s something here for everybody as there is a lot of variety of work on display here. Will be continuing on with the second wave as and when they are released – Ozymandias #1, Rorschach #1, Mr. Manhattan #1, and the Epilogue one-shot.



Abhinav also writes and reviews for Founding Fields, as “Shadowhawk”.

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