Brian Azzarello, J.G. Jones, Lee Bermejo, Before Watchmen: Comedian/Rorschach, 2013

Before Watchmen

Author: Brian Azzarello (writer), J.G. Jones, Lee Bermejo (illustrations)

Title: Before Watchmen: Comedian/Rorschach

Format: Hardcover

Pages: 256

Thank gods for libraries! Because if I’d bought this, driven by nostalgia, authors’ fame, or some misplaced need for adventure, or a revisit of the universe before HBO’s TV series scheduled for next year, I’d have been furious. All right, I knew the Watchmen prequels were a shameless money grab, there was no doubt about it. But I also hoped for some kind of tribute, a homage, or a thoughtful reimagining of the ideas and social commentary presented by Moore and Gibbons in the story and characters from Watchmen.

Watchmen

Need I say more? I probably ought to 😉 So, first things first, Moore’s and Gibbons’ Watchmen are on my list of favorite graphic novels of all time. Gritty, subversive, digging deep into the American superhero mythos and collective identity, Watchmen became at once the grist and the mill of the pop culture, simultaneously giving it lasting imagery and the tools to analyze it. We should probably do a Two-shot post on Watchmen here at Re-Enchantment, but because our views on the work of Moore and Gibbons are very similar, there wouldn’t be much suspense or tension. We might only have some differences of opinion regarding certain characters and plot devices (the fated pirate story, ekhm…), but our overall reviews would be quite alike.

I have been circling around Before Watchmen for a while now, at first dismissing this idea as a blatant and ill-conceived effort to capitalize on Moore and Gibbons’ work – and DC’s already done more than enough bad things in this regard. However, when I saw the Comedian/Rorschach book in my local library, I decided to finally give it a chance and overcome my prejudice – after all, I thought, Azzarello of 100 Bullets and Batman fame wouldn’t butcher Moore’s ideas.

I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Let me start with Rorschach, because it’s a fairly straightforward task. Before Watchmen: Rorschach is simply a redundant work, unneeded and unwanted, bringing to the table only old, reheated and slightly smelly stuff, which has already lost all texture and taste. Rorschach’s prequel does nothing to shed more light on one of the favorite characters from Watchmen, showing only a story of Kovac’s botched attempts at fighting a gang led by a Vietnam vet with disfigured face, all the while blaring some incomprehensible and pompous bullshit about faces and masks. There are the requisite feral dogs on the streets, a tiger acting as a Deus ex Machina, and, as a bonus, a psychopath murdering women and writing bloody poetic messages on their bodies, left in trash. Everything: the over-the-top violence, here with a strong sexual subtext, the reminiscences about cold and distant mother and the traditional ongoing commentary of Rorschach, feels flat and lifeless, a failed attempt to ape Moore’s work which turns itself into its own parody. Like a dutiful pupil, Azzarello puts an edited mistake into every entry of Rorschach’s diary. In his efforts he apparently forgot that Rorschach’s musing had internal logic and sense – twisted and abnormal, granted, but filled with urgency and dark psychological realism in the portrayal of an ailing mind. There’s none of it here.

The only good thing about this comic book is the art, evocative, detailed, reminiscent of Gibbons. Bermejo’s graphics are expressive, full of tension, and well suited to the anti-hero character of Rorschach. I wish he had a better story to illustrate. There was one really cool moment – when Rorschach meets Taxi Driver:

Before Watchmen Taxi Driver

As for Before Watchmen: Comedian, I’m actually at a loss for words. How could anyone allow such treatment of Moore’s character is beyond my comprehension. And I don’t even mind so much the improbable relationship with Kennedys – that in itself wouldn’t pose a big problem, even if from a psychological perspective doesn’t make any sense, for both sides of the equation. If everything else were fine, I’d probably play with it a bit, because the room for critique is vast indeed: from the really bland and unconvincing art up to the fact that JFK was during his presidency really in no condition to play touch football with anyone, especially a superhero. But, well, it’s alternate reality, so JFK can be strong and hale, and Jackie mean and ugly.

Comedian

What I take issue with, however, and big time, is the fact that Azzarello decided to clean up the slate for American people and put the blame for the Vietnam War and its atrocities squarely on the shoulders of the Comedian. Yeah, sure, if Eddie Blake was such a mean bastard, and always had been, it is only natural that he was the one responsible for Mỹ Lai massacre, for killing Bobby Kennedy, starting riots on the streets and allowing JFK’s murder. Anything else? Yeah, racist jokes aplenty. By the end, I was quite surprised that they haven’t shaved his mustache a bit and put him in 1930’s Germany… The Comedian in Moore’s and Gibbons’ work was no saint, but in Azzarello’s take he is an unchangeable force of moral rot. War, even such a horrific conflict as the Vietnam War, doesn’t change him – it’s Comedian who changes the war, influencing its length, outcome and the ways in which it’s fought. It’s Eddie Blake who’s responsible for the depravation of the good American boys in the jungles of Vietnam. It’s Comedian who’s responsible for murdering Marilyn Monroe, for crying out loud.

Before Watchmen: Comedian is a lost chance. It could have been an ambitious attempt at showing what made Blake so amoral and jaded, and yet possessing some core moral compass till the end. A perfect example of how it is done is Garth Ennis’ Punisher: Platoon: at once an incredibly well executed superhero origin story and a timely, astute commentary on the nature of war. It’s an ugly – and quite revealing – kind of hubris to imagine oneself free of guilt, free of influence, a veritable world unto yourself, as Azzarello did with the U.S. in Before Watchmen: Comedian. This graphic novel has no redeeming qualities.

I’ve heard some better things about other comics from the series of Watchmen prequels – yet after this adventure I have no inclination of trying them out. The only thing that Before Watchmen: Comedian/Rorschach excelled in was leaving an unpleasant aftertaste.

Score: Comedian 1/10, Rorschach 3/10

31 thoughts on “Brian Azzarello, J.G. Jones, Lee Bermejo, Before Watchmen: Comedian/Rorschach, 2013

  1. Yay, our first 1/10 😀

    Well, thank you for this warning, because I was intrigued by these comics. Like the Nostalgia Critic, you’ve read it so we don’t have to 😉

    I’m increasingly annoyed by the prequel mania, in the movie world, in comics and books. For the executives it seems a safe bet, and the audience usually falls for it.

    What they did to both the characters here.. disrespectful. Especially the Comedian, they took the easiest, cheapest way out, just to cash in on a popular character. Shame on them!

    Liked by 2 people

    • The only thing that appeals to me is the art, as far as I can tell from the examples shown. I have another Alan Moore novel waiting, a spin-off from the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen—though I haven’t read the original—and I’d rather enjoy his literary tropes, his moral questioning and his sheer linguistic acrobatics than the reductionism apparent in these rip-offs.

      Liked by 2 people

      • He’s one of the big talents of the graphic novel world, underappreciated by snobs unable to go beyond classic novels…

        I’ve read and enjoyed the League…, but I have to say each consecutive volume held less and less appeal for me, being more graphic and less subtle, and finally just hammering author’s message…

        I also have his “Jerusalem” on my shelf, a huge novel that I’m afraid to start. One of the 10 longest novels ever published in English, Moore’s opus magnum, multi-genre monster that might become the Ulysses of genre fiction 😉

        Liked by 2 people

      • The art is OK for the Rorschach part – hence the higher rating 😉 But the Comedian part is just bad. Seems like even the guy drawing it didn’t have heart for the job 😉

        Like

    • Yeah, the first one – but probably not the last 😉

      The prequel mania goes hand in hand with the reboot mania and a remake mania – it seems that it’s more and more difficult for the Western popculture to come up with something new.

      The Comedian story really set my teeth on edge. It is a double disgrace, one for the character, the other one for the American history. Own it instead of trying to write it anew!

      Like

  2. What a crying shame: I’m guessing these two travesties aren’t endorsed by Alan Moore?! Whoever conceived these prequels and then mangled the Watchmen legacy need to be … I don’t know, maybe exiled to Mars or Antarctica and not allowed to besmirch our fond memories…

    I did a review of this you might find interested (https://wp.me/s2oNj1-watchmen) and Lizza and I did a tag-team review on Twitter (reported here: https://wp.me/p32Wce-9O). Also I alluded to Watchmen here (https://wp.me/p2oNj1-DV), I wonder if you can spot the reference? 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Glad to see a 1star finally. I’m not a fan of Watchmen (the less I say the better) so hearing that a prequel trashes it doesn’t hurt my feelings at all. However, I understand the pain and whatnot you must have experienced since you ARE a fan.

    Very little is worse than somebody else taking something you really like and destroying everything you thought was great about the original…

    Liked by 2 people

  4. I’ve heard similar things about this spin-offs. I have mad respect for Azzarello and Bermejo for what they can do, but man… the whole idea behind these series is way too uncooooool! Bermejo artwork really is impeccable though. I’d buy just about any of his work for that alone, but this… Argh… I actually have this volume with me but I’m not sure if I want to crack it open and taint my love for Watchmen though… I wonder if the TV series will do it justice though… Great review as always. Love reading your thoughts. Soooo eloquent! 😮

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks as always! 😀
      Man, this was bad. There’s no going around that fact. It was cringe-worthy, and what they did with the Comedian was disgraceful – not only to Moore and Gibbons, but also to the readers. And the usage of the My Lai photos as background while trying to put it all down to bad influence of one comic book character?! Some things you just don’t do.
      So yeah, 1/10…

      Liked by 1 person

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