Saturday, 1 August 2015

Before Watchmen: Comedian/Rorschach Review (Brian Azzarello, JG Jones)

The Before Watchmen audience splits itself neatly in two: those who adore Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen and detest these prequels purely because the original creators had nothing to do with them (and they’re an obvious cash-grab); and those who aren’t as enamoured with Moore/Gibbons’ book and approach this series with a less reactionary mindset. 

I’m in the latter. I think Moore’s Watchmen is very overrated and I’m not surprised DC went back to capitalise on one of their biggest properties - they’re a business, that’s what they do! If Marvel owned Watchmen, they’d do the same thing because money. 

Not being a Watchmen fan, I wasn’t expecting much from these prequels especially after seeing the Ozymandias/Crimson Corsair book was just so-so. Surprise - Brian Azzarello’s Comedian/Rorschach is actually pretty good! 

The six-issue Comedian series reads a lot like Garth Ennis' Punisher/Nick Fury Vietnam stories which were brilliant - only the protagonist here is far more sadistic. It opens in the ‘60s where Eddie Blake, aka the Comedian, is a close friend of President JFK and the Attorney General RFK. He helps out Jackie with a peroxide-blonde rival and gets intentionally distracted by the FBI on the day JFK goes to Dallas. 

From there he goes to Vietnam and single-handedly manages to lower the level of the war. So much so, he’s transferred out of there as his atrocities have made the Vietcong that much more determined to beat the Americans! The story ends in the ‘80s where he’s working to get RFK elected (it’s a different timeline remember) against Nixon. 

It’s dark and unpleasant a lot of the time but damned if I wasn’t interested in Comedian’s life story! This evil bastard led quite the life, a product of these turbulent times that were a-changin’. Azzarello’s experience writing 100 Bullets pays off as he brings an appropriately street-level grittiness to his story (and Rorschach’s) filled with violence and unsavoury characters. 

JG Jones’ art is very good and I loved Alex Sinclair’s colours (though he doesn’t colour the whole six issues unfortunately), bringing a vividness to Jones’ Vietnam that matches the soldiers’ LSD-tinged experiences. 

The four-issue Rorschach series sees Azzarello reunited with his Joker artist, Lee Bermejo (if you haven’t read that collaboration, check it out, it’s one of the best Joker books ever!). 

Set in 1977, a serial killer called The Bard is abducting, murdering, and carving messages into the bodies of women. Rorschach’s looking for the killer as well as targeting mob boss Rawhead and his crime network. 

It’s about as grim as you’d expect from a Rorschach series though it’s not as interesting as Comedian’s. Azzarello’s canvas is much smaller, not just in issue count but because Rorschach is just a paranoid, damaged loner instead of a connected, highly skilled killing machine like Comedian, so rather than taking in several colourful locations, we’re stuck in the backstreets of a grimy city. 

Bermejo’s art is a big reason for liking this series. I always love his work - the textures, the detail, the realism - and his pages for Rorschach are superb. Look at that incredible third page - it’s a long shot of the city at night, lights and white clouds moving amidst the darkness. Look at it from afar and it rearranges itself into Rorschach’s face! Lee Bermejo made a Rorschach-type print of the city Rorschach patrols in the Rorschach series - and it looks amazing! Genius. 

We see a younger Rorschach not quite as capable as he is when we see him in Watchmen - he’s still learning to fight and gets his ass brutally handed to him by Rawhead’s goons. The one major flaw in this story is when Rawhead tells them to deal with him and they just beat him near to death. Why didn’t they put a bullet in his head instead of giving him the chance to recover and come back after them?! 

Rorschach’s journal is typewritten at the start and slowly develops into the handwritten style that we see in the original Watchmen book. It’s interesting that he devolves the format - probably to make it more portable so he wouldn’t be tied to a machine and could write wherever. Maybe also as a metaphorical back-to-basics approach to crime-fighting, in contrast to the future presented by Doctor Manhattan and Ozymandias. 

Rorschach’s is not as compelling a story as Comedian’s but it’s still enjoyable. But considering he’s by far people’s favourite character in the series, it feels underwhelming. We don’t really learn much about Rorschach’s psyche, he’s basically already fully-formed, albeit not as great a fighter yet. And it’s exactly the kind of story you expect for Rorschach and that predictability makes it a bit disappointing. 

A lot of the negativity towards Before Watchmen stems from Watchmen fans standing up for their beloved book’s legacy. Because these aren’t actually bad comics in themselves. Obviously if you’re going into this thinking, How DARE DC besmirch the sacred Watchmen!, then of course you’re going to hate this. 

If all you’re looking for is some good crime/vigilante comics, you’re going to find plenty to like in this one. It’s not as deep, complex or original as Moore/Gibbons’ Watchmen (I can’t imagine anyone is expecting this anyway), but it’s entertaining stuff nonetheless. 

Brian Azzarello, man - he’s a wild card! Sometimes he’s good, sometimes not so much. And thankfully he, along with the respective art teams, bring their A-games to Comedian and Rorschach.

Before Watchmen: Comedian/Rorschach

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