Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Before Watchmen: Ozymandias and Crimson Corsair by Len Wein and Jae Lee Review

Before Watchmen is a series of prequels to Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s much-lauded book, Watchmen, with each character from the book given their own mini-series. This volume collects the Ozymandias and Crimson Corsair mini-series and the Dollar Bill one-shot.

Having a strong background in comics as the creator of Wolverine and Swamp Thing, as well as editing the original Watchmen comics, writer Len Wein is a good fit for this series. For those who’ve read the original Watchmen (and why would you be reading these books if you haven’t?) Ozymandias, aka Adrian Veidt, seemed like a pretty bland character. Labelled the World’s Smartest Man and wearing a campy outfit, he never came across as a particularly interesting man. With this mini-series Wein has at least made him appear to be a richer character even if he doesn’t present much to surprise the reader.

Narrating his story in the first person into a recording device for posterity (appropriate given his massive ego), Veidt details his biography and how he came to call himself Ozymandias and decide that it was up to him to save the world. This latter point is perhaps the aspect to Veidt’s personality that Wein really nails. We see Veidt go from misunderstood bullied genius to a lethal fighting machine whose extraordinary intellect and ego pushes him further away from his humanity, symbolised in his isolated Antarctic retreat Karnak where he hatches his mad plan. Through his narration, his actions almost become understandable while he even seems sympathetic at times, which is really scary as he’s the villain of the story.

Wein highlights Alexander the Great as an inspiration to Veidt whose ambition and purpose convince him to attempt to unify the world, as well as lead him to incorporate Alexander memorabilia into his costume (the headband, gauntlets). But when it comes to the costume itself, Wein loses his inspiration as he has Veidt pick it out purely because it was in his wardrobe, an old Halloween costume. Oh. That’s… dull. Even the creation of his pet lynx, Bubastis, when revealed is unremarkable. The reaction isn’t “wow, so THAT’S how it happened”, it’s more, “Oh. Ok. Moving on”.

And while I thought Veidt’s background was entertaining enough, I wondered why it had to be told. His youthful travels learning martial arts, other cultures, and history, his domination of the business world thanks to his formidable intellect, reading every sci-fi novel ever written to concoct his insane plan – these are all blanks that didn’t need to be explicitly filled in by the writer; the reader does this when reading Watchmen. I enjoyed the story but at six issues, it’s really stretched thin – really, it could’ve worked equally, if not better, as an extra-long one-shot.

The highlight of the Ozymandias mini-series is Jae Lee’s amazing art. It’s almost cliché to praise Lee’s artwork when discussing a book he’s worked on but it really is stunning and his work here is first class. Eye-catching, bold, haunting and gothic, Lee elevates Wein’s script into something more exciting and memorable. Like other artists whose style is painted and realistic (think Alex Ross), his figures can seem a bit static and posed, but the otherworldly, dream-like appearance of Lee’s work negates such impressions.

We now come to the worst part of the book by far: Crimson Corsair. Set in the 18th century, an English sailor called Gordon McLachlan drowns after the Spanish sink his ship. He’s saved by the Crimson Corsair, captain of the ghost ship The Flying Dutchman, who steals his soul. To get it back he must retrieve a series of odd objects.

I think the only reason why this series was done at all is because the original Watchmen had a pirate story in it so DC decided that, while they were spinning off as much as they could from Watchmen, they may as well have a pirate story of their own. Except the original Tales of the Black Freighter was conceived as a meta story that reflected the events in Watchmen, which is why it worked. Crimson Corsair doesn’t do anything – it’s just an immensely tedious supernatural pirate story that has no place anywhere.

To be honest, I wasn’t a fan of the Black Freighter parts of Watchmen - besides the prose chapters, it was the worst part of the book. Written in this hideous purple prose of 19th century adventure novels, Black Freighter was near-unreadable, which is at least one quality it shares with Crimson Corsair which mimics this writing style. But while Black Freighter had amazing EC Comics-like art going for it, Crimson Corsair doesn’t. It’s art isn’t terrible but it’s very bland and indistinctive.

What makes it even worse is that the story is divided up into 2-page “chapters” so that the writers are constantly having to reiterate at the start what happened 2 pages ago. It might’ve been more bearable reading it in the monthlies where these appeared as backups across numerous titles but collected in one continuous story? It reads like the awful, headache-inducing rot that it is.

Dollar Bill, a one-shot about Bill Brady, a good looking but out of work actor who becomes a bank’s superhero mascot, isn’t bad but I don’t know why there needed to be a Dollar Bill comic. He barely featured in the original Watchmen - he was a punch line, a costume who got killed when his cape was caught in a bank’s revolving door allowing the robbers to shoot him. But it’s not a bad note to end on even if Dollar Bill steadfastly remains an uninteresting character and it’s definitely a palate-cleanser after the Crimson Corsair rubbish. Steve Rude’s artwork is really good, drawn in a Golden Age style that captures the tone of the story.

Ozymandias/Crimson Corsair is worth a read if only for the Ozymandias part - I’d skip Crimson Corsair entirely – but don’t expect much more insight into Ozymandias’s character than what we got in the original Watchmen.

Before Watchmen: Ozymandias / Crimson Corsair

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