Author: Brian Azzarello (writer), J.G. Jones, Lee Bermejo (illustrations)
Title: Before Watchmen: Comedian/Rorschach
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.
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:
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.
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