Saturday, 26 September 2015

Before Watchmen: Nite Owl/Dr.Manhattan Review (J. Michael Staczynski, Andy Kubert)


Before Watchmen hasn’t been a bad series at all. Brian Azzarello’s Comedian/Rorschach is my pick for the best of the bunch but the Ozymandias/Crimson Corsair and Minutemen/Silk Spectre books have enough to recommend them too. Which is why it’s a shame when it comes to two of the biggest Watchmen characters, Nite Owl and Dr. Manhattan, J. Michael Straczynski really drops the ball and produces the worst collection of the group. 

Like all of the stories here, Dan Dreiberg/Nite Owl’s origins are unpleasant opening with an abusive father beating his mother. Dan is able to somehow track down the original Nite Owl/Hollis Mason’s hideout despite being on foot and Mason being in a car, and becomes his apprentice. Before the end of the first issue, Dan is grown up, is the new Nite Owl and teamed up with Rorschach in a scene from the original Watchmen. The majority of Nite Owl’s story isn’t so much “before” Watchmen as it is set “during” Watchmen. 

From there is a bland and utterly pointless journey as Nite Owl and Rorschach argue and Dan falls for an S&M mistress who also moonlights as a scantily-clad vigilante. They foil a drug dealer/human smuggler while Rorschach fights a generically evil preacher. Absolute rubbish! 

At least Nite Owl has a story though because Straczynski really doesn’t know what to do with Dr. Manhattan. He concocts some non-story about Dr. Manhattan discovering a timeline where he, Jon Osterman, DOESN’T become Dr. Manhattan and this sort of threatens reality, the universe or whatever. There’s also a brief origin story of how he lost his mother because if there’s one thing Straczynski does well, it’s miserable downer-stories. 

Dr. Manhattan was one of the characters I was looking forward to reading about the most in Before Watchmen and his story was so, so pointless, as well as dreary and monotonous, it ended up being the most disappointing. 

Continuing the theme of utterly useless origin stories, Straczynski goes for the hat-trick with the two-issue(!) Moloch, that minor villain character who briefly appeared in Watchmen. His backstory is definitely the most grim filled with physical and emotional abuse, violence, drugs, prostitution and finally terminal cancer. This is why I never usually bother with Straczynski’s comics - he embraces the dark side of life thinking it makes him an interesting storyteller but it always comes off as desperate and inane. 

I can’t imagine there are many readers who haven’t read Watchmen prior to picking up the Before Watchmen series, but Moloch’s mini-series, like Dr. Manhattan’s, gives away major plot-points of the original book. So even though it’s a prequel, new readers would be better served reading the original Watchmen before this - though Straczynski’s book is so crummy I wouldn’t recommend doing that anyway! 

The only positives about this volume are the visuals as the various artists do some good work. I’m no fan of Andy Kubert’s (Damian: Son of Batman turned me against him!) and didn’t think much of his work on Nite Owl even if there’s nothing especially bad about it. And I guess that panel where Rorschach is holding “The End is Nigh” sign and walking through a burning church was a cool image. 

Adam Hughes’ work on Dr. Manhattan was trippy and interesting. I especially liked how he inverted the panels when he switched perspective with another Watchmen character. And Eduardo Risso produces some fine pages on Moloch. 

I know Before Watchmen came off as a concept that reeked of cynical money-grubbing (because that’s what it was - DC run a business, deal with it!) but there were some decent comics to come out of it regardless of Watchmen fans’ contempt; however, Straczynski’s issues were not among them. I recommend Azzarello’s book over this one and lowering expectations when checking out the others. Most readers won’t do this but I’d say skip the Nite Owl/Dr. Manhattan volume - it’s not just barely a prequel that does nothing to illuminate the characters any further but it’s also a miserable and wholly unnecessary read.

Before Watchmen: Nite Owl/Dr.Manhattan

1 comment:

  1. I can't figure out why you always point out how overrated Watchmen is, but then recommend most of these comparatively simple and predictable Before Watchmen collections. Really the politics behind these series don't mean anything ultimately, and it's the stories themselves that matter. But with that said, Azzarello's comedian was such a dumpy and unconvincing portrayal of the character. The plot wasn't horrible, but it was so predictable and flat. And the Rorschach story was like a four issue writing exercise to reveal what? I know you like comics stuffed with macho action and characters you don't have to think about, but I'm just perplexed as to why you would recommend stories that make these characters seem relatively boring and generic, but not the source material which created the genuine interest to begin with?

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