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Meanwhile, On the Top Shelf

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Before Watchmen

Those of us who read superhero comic books today will call them many things: smart, beautiful, clever. Bold, challenging, thoughtful. Today, in fact, any adjective that might fit a novel or film can be applied to comics. We can even call them brilliant.

My parents and grandparents certainly couldn’t. In the 1930s and 40s, titles like Action Comics were manuals for rambunctiousness; blueprints for leaping across furniture and accidentally socking a younger sibling. Then in the 1950s and early 60s, after psychiatrist Fredric Wertham’s book Seduction of the Innocent helped establish the Comics Code (1954, both), superheroes like Batman and Robin became mannequins of law and order. They starred in morally black and white adventures that taught children to worship their parents, teachers, and the police.

If not for Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and Steve Ditko–the visionary founders of Marvel–superhero comics might have remained instructional pamphlets forever. Marvel titles such as The Fantastic Four and The Amazing Spider-Man starred teenagers like Peter Parker and Johnny Storm, characters whose style and energy created legions of readers. Moreover, Marvel characters faced not just fantasy villainy, but real world problems; coping with everything from crappy finances to a loved one’s death, they routinely stepped into our world.

In the early 1970s, with a swelling readership in college, both DC and Marvel comics eagerly paralleled a grim reality fraught with racial tension and substance abuse. A temporary suspension of the Comics Code allowed Peter Parker to deal with roommate Harry Osborn’s drug overdose (1971). An elderly African American asked space-cop Green Lantern why he had time to help those with orange and purple skin, but not black (1970). In other words, the more comics were allowed to say, the more they said.

Elaborate societal critiques began enveloping readers like bad trips. In 1980, writer Chris Claremont’s Uncanny X-Men tale “Days of Future Past” forced all mutants into either graves or concentration camps. Captain America witnessed a similarly hellish future, albeit one ruled not by fascist humans, but by cyborgs (1983). These pitch black stories course through the body and claw the nerves. But they’re fixed in the realm of last-second saves and one-liners that children might act out. These comics present the utter ruination of people and places, but ultimate consequences wash out in time for the next storyline.

Watchmen CoverThen, standing high on its own uppermost shelf, there’s DC’s Watchmen (1986). Written by Alan Moore, drawn by Dave Gibbons, this twelve issue series features characters that appear nowhere else. When their grisly, politically-charged story closes, there is no, “See you in thirty days, readers.” Largely for this reason, Watchmen is the most popular and widely-acclaimed graphic novel ever.

The premise is thoroughly magnetic: portray superheroes as realistically as possible. Have them age, retire, sire illegitimate children, have longings and ambitions beyond the cape. Place them in an accurate historical context, allowing them to interact with the world we live in.

Watchmen‘s cast includes Nite Owl (who fights crime with technological weapons, like Batman), Rorschach (a violent, disturbed vigilante who sees the world in black and white), Silk Spectre (a crime-fighter carrying on her mother’s tarnished legacy), Ozymandias (a wealthy, intelligent hero who believes more in social justice than punching), Dr. Manhattan (a science experiment gone wrong, able to manipulate matter), and the Comedian (a scumbag version of Captain America).

We’re also treated to Richard Nixon. He’s still president because Dr. Manhattan’s miraculous atomic powers helped the United States win the Vietnam War. Then, in the late 70s, Congress passed the Keene Act, which outlawed costumed adventuring. On one level, this set up makes Watchmen a mid-80s tale of how different heroes adjust to normal life (hint: they get advice from the previous generation’s heroes, like Hollis Mason, the 1950s Nite Owl). On another level, this is about who murdered the Comedian, the ruinous social effects of the Cold War, and how past shades of gray can become black and white in the retelling.

In August of 1987, Watchmen‘s penultimate eleventh issue hit newsstands. I single it out because it’s the exact moment when comic books reached their highest (and still unsurpassed) narrative peak. If you were lucky enough to read a copy the day it came out, you probably remember the time, place, and sense of speechlessness that struck you. In it, Nite Owl and Rorschach speak with Adrian Veidt, the retired hero Ozymandias, in his antarctic fortress. Most of their long exchange is dominated by Veidt, who details his journey from crime-fighter to aspiring caretaker of humankind. The mid-80s world Veidt hopes to help virtually mirrors the one that existed at the time–amid environmental despoliation, the governments of the United States and the Soviet Union were locked in a nuclear arms race, while urban infrastructures slowly decayed.

Veidt also admits to murdering fellow retiree the Comedian, who’d learned of Veidt’s plan to “frighten governments into cooperation” and “convince them that Earth faced imminent attack by beings from another world.” Nite Owl and Rorschach, stunned by his nonchalance, recall the stranger things their host has mentioned: artists designing a monster on a private island, genetic engineering, and teleportation. Once Veidt claims that the three can be combined to kill half of New York, Nite Owl interrupts:

Adrian, I’m sorry… you need help. I know this “half New York” stuff is bullshit, but I’m still glad we got here before you got deeper into this mess. Christ, you seriously planned all this mad scientist stuff? I mean, when was this hopeless black fantasy supposed to happen? When were you planning to do it?

The now-legendary answer, playing upon our ingrained experience (via comics, film, television, and literature) that the diatribes of evil men betray a core impotence, is this:

“Do it?” Dan, I’m not a Republic serial villain. Do you honestly think I’d explain my masterstroke if there remained the slightest chance of you affecting its outcome? I did it thirty- five minutes ago.

This reply is all the more chilling for its apparent sanity; Veidt, far from antagonistic, even uses Nite Owl’s first name. Following panels show the dumbfounded vigilantes, and New Yorkers awash in harsh white light. The next and last issue of Watchmen begins with six full-page spreads of obliterated people and buildings, squatted over by a tentacled monstrosity; the death toll is estimated at three million.

Gibbons artThen Veidt’s news monitors start reporting that the Soviets have decided to pull out of Afghanistan, and worldwide hostilities will cease while this greater threat is investigated. “I did it,” says the tearful businessman, “I did it!”

This is a shocking, brilliant climax to an already ambitious murder mystery. Watchmen‘s large cast is rendered with a complexity that–especially upon release–challenged readers and comic creators to see the medium in a more mature light. Moore and Gibbons’ opus enmeshes classic crime-busting in world history, quantum physics, and trials of the heart.

It doesn’t matter that Moore, against editor Len Wein’s wishes, went ahead with an ending that coincidentally mimics a 1963 episode of Outer Limits called “The Architects of Fear.” And who cares if the main characters, each representing a different worldview, intentionally riff on creations of the defunct publisher Charlton Comics. Watchmen stands alone, the boldest of bold statements on superheroes, blessedly immortal in a single twelve issue volume that anyone can read, absorb, and draw inspiration from.

Ahem. It stood alone, I should say.

In the fall of 2012, DC celebrated the one year anniversary of its “New 52” universe (which relaunched every comic, severing most characters from decades of history) with a series of miniseries called Before Watchmen. The titles, now collected in handsome oversized hardcovers, are Minutemen, Nite Owl, Ozymandias, Rorschach, Silk Spectre, Dr. Manhattan, and Comedian.

Regarding the project, artist Gibbons reasserted that Watchmen is a self-contained story, but added, “I appreciate DC’s reasons for this initiative and the wish of the artists and writers involved to pay tribute to our work. May these new additions have the success they desire.” Moore, who’s become an outspoken critic of mainstream comics, showed no support for the endeavor (despite DC having nourished most of his best work–like Swamp Thing and Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?). Ironically, he now views the company as plunderers, incapable of creating fresh ideas. “Let’s change [Watchmen] to a regular comic that can run indefinitely and have spin-offs,” he mocked. And he did so after being offered the rights to the material, provided he himself pen a prequel and sequel. This bounty he declined, though he’d asked for it about ten years ago.

Is Moore’s commentary valid, or merely the luxurious whining of someone whose own success plunders the past with equal verve? More importantly, can Before Watchmen stand alongside the original?

Cooke MinutemenA robust dissection is in order, starting with Minutemen, the core title around which the others orbit. Written and drawn by Darwyn Cooke, this mid-century adventure stars beat cop Hollis Mason and follows him through his decades as the first Nite Owl. Opening in 1962, we find him soliciting feedback for his memoir Under the Hood. None of his former crime-fighters want this tell-all published, and we flash back to 1939 to see why. There, at the first gathering of the Minutemen, he’s joined by Hooded Justice, Captain Metropolis, the Comedian, the original Silk Spectre, Mothman, Dollar Bill, and Silhouette.

In the 1990s, Cooke drew storyboards for both the Batman and Superman animated series; his style has retained the bouncy innocence found there, without sacrificing the ability to darken. His page layouts– similar to Gibbons’, with typically between seven and nine panels–recall a Golden Age in which superheroes primarily dealt with petty criminals and well-dressed gangsters. His lines–and smirking figures, too–hit a clean middle ground between lighter and scratchier textures, radiating with the era’s optimism.

For the plot (which centers on catching a serial child abductor), Cooke marvelously fleshes-out characters only sketched by Moore in flashback. Vital, however, is that he handles Watchmen‘s main characters with excellence. Here’s a brash young Comedian asking the Minutemen’s agent about endorsement money: “Speaking of the radio and such, when do we start to see some of the dough from all that?”

Hollis says,”You’ve got a nerve. Word is you take whatever you need. The cops say there’s one thing about all the crooks you haul in: they’re broke.” “Hey,” replies Comedian, “a kid’s gotta eat. You want I should sleep in the goddamn gutter?” If he did, it would probably be cleaner than the gutter Rorschach uses in late 70s New York. But let’s not skip ahead. The hard-bitten mystery of the Minutemen has been collected in the same volume as Silk Spectre.

Conner Silk SpectreCooke scripts this title too, while Amanda Conner illustrates a tumultuous chapter in the life of Laurie Jupiter. She’s the teen daughter of Sally Jupiter, the original Silk Spectre–a street-fighting heroine modeled on Charlton’s Nightshade and DC’s Black Canary. Set in 1966, this tale makes formidable use of San Francisco’s Haight Ashbury scene. Laurie, after rejecting her mother’s vigilante training (the practice home-invasion, with Lesley Gore’s Sunshine Lollipops and Rainbows playing in the background, is amazing), runs away and ends up living with her boyfriend Greg and another couple.

Conner’s rich Archie-in-spandex style evokes deceptive innocence. She sticks much closer to Gibbons’ classic grid paneling than the other Before Watchmen artists–and wins us over with retro exuberance. Wavering pages, where Laurie takes acid and argues with her parrot’s skeleton, pulse with colors by Paul Mounts. They’re also hilarious, as Cooke shuffles in character moments tied to both Watchmen and Minutemen. “Wait,” says Laurie, “isn’t Uncle Hollis gonna visit? He won’t let you starve.” The hallucinated pet replies, “You mean the pretend dad that you see every few years?”

Laurie doesn’t want her buzz killed (“Aw, don’t start with the dad shit.”). But a slimy suit named the Chairman (who looks like Frank Sinatra) does just that; he holds a powwow with the scene’s major rock bands (The Beatles, The Doors, The Rolling Stones) to scold them, because: “All these kids need to enjoy the lifestyle you’re pushing is a radio and a dirty poncho.” The Chairman then introduces the free-lovin’ Gurustein, a peddler of laced drugs that will turn teens into consumers. As Laurie navigates this cynical world, she pries the Silk Spectre persona from her mother’s grip, becoming a mature crime-fighter on her own terms.

These titles by Cooke and Conner succeed because the subjects, removed from their roles in Watchmen‘s complexity, remain entertaining. This is only occasionally true of the other characters. Dr. Manhattan and Nite Owl comprise the next hardcover collection, written by J. Michael Straczynski (creator of Babylon 5) and drawn by Adam Hughes and Andy Kubert.

Hughes ManhattanThe main lure of Dr. Manhattan is the sequential artwork of Hughes, which enthralls like a bird of paradise. After an opening career of short stints on comics like Ghost and Justice League America, he became a cover artist, primarily for titles starring buxom bombshells (Wonder Woman and Catwoman). Here, his spacious panels, colored with electric succulence by Laura Martin, spread the idea of Dr. Manhattan a bit thin.

In Watchmen, this iconic character begins as physicist Jon Osterman. Then he’s trapped in an “intrinsic field” chamber, where his atoms are scattered and later reassembled. This makes him a chilly atomic “superman” who feels all points in time simultaneously. Moore writes Dr. Manhattan’s memories in the present tense, and they serve as their own cosmic thump alongside the other characters’ unique beats: “It’s September, 1961. John Kennedy is shaking my hand, asking what it’s like to be a superhero. I tell him he should know and he nods, laughing…”

Admirably, Straczynski tries to offer his own Quantum Buddhist music, but numerous passages like, “My father used to say if you ask a centipede which foot goes first, it will sit there for hours, unable to move,” become monotonous across four issues. The series does little more than comment that, “Yeah, time is kinda crazy when you think about it.”

Even less impressive is the Nite Owl series, which teams straight-shooting vigilante Dan Dreiberg with dominatrix-themed heroine the Twilight Lady. While rescuing Rorschach from a priest who’s been killing prostitutes, they validate some of Moore’s harshest complaints against Before Watchmen. All four issues grope weakly not just for dark relevance, but for an “adult” sense of humor. Entering a burning building, Nite Owl says to the Twilight Lady: “We need to split up, look for anyone trapped inside. You go up, I’ll go down.” Her reply, “Turns out that is your specialty–” is stale man-boy stupidity.

Kubert’s art, meanwhile, is by-the-numbers stuff. This is partially Straczynski’s fault, since he paced the dialogue; the only redeeming moments are those out of costume, when Dreiberg confronts his mentor Hollis about his role in the Minutemen’s final case. Genuine emotion illuminates large panels, and the script honors Moore’s characters. “I don’t care what happened in the past,” Dan tells the older man, “I know the person you are. The person I needed you to be.”

Bermejo RorschachYet, if you love Watchmen for its seedy New York and X-rated Indochina, then Brian Azzarello’s collection beckons. A writer whose imagination is a four-alarm fire of sleaziness, he takes us into the realms of Rorschach and the Comedian. In the former series, he and artist Lee Bermejo hunt a serial killer in the late 70s.

Azzarello echoes Moore’s misanthropic Rorschach perfectly, as we read in typed-out notes: “I’ve spent days wading through garbage. Looking for shit. A prospector in Hell, digging for the mother load.” But it’s Bermejo’s work that, like Cooke’s and Conner’s, opens an irresistible world; only in the 1976 film Taxi Driver might you find a New York so burnished with rage. Bermejo gilds every peepshow sign and wet sidewalk with photo-realistic texture. Colorist Barbara Ciardo brings metallic phosphorescence to our hero’s battle against the crime lord Rawhead (whose face was burnt to sausage in Vietnam), as well as to his search for the Bard (who carves poetry into dead hookers).

Craving something with more historical heft? The Comedian series, drawn by J.G. Jones, sees ethically-challenged Minuteman Edward Blake become the Kennedy clan’s bulldog in the 1960s. Azzarello’s script, however, oozing camp, never gives this tale a believable foothold. During the game of touch football that opens the series, after Blake and JFK accidentally tumble, we get this forcefully winking exchange: “You okay, Eddie?” “Me?” replies the Comedian, “What about you? Taking out the president–that’s all I need on my resume.”

Though the Watchmen film (2009), much-debated by comic fans, shows the Comedian on the grassy knoll, Azzarello counters this by having him kill Bobby Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe instead. The scene showing the latter is inter-cut with a conversation where Jackie serves Blake martinis and finishes all of his sentences lasciviously. It reads like a bad Penthouse Letter, no matter the tone attempted, no matter how clean Jones’ portraiture might be.

Evidently a slow, careful draftsman (especially for covers), Jones has lately become a somewhat careless sequential artist. Facial expressions are a bit muddier than what he’s capable of, and his lines are slightly ragged. Possibly he decided that the massacre of Vietnamese civilians, among other garish, brutal scenes, ranked below the full focus of his powers.

Which brings us to Watchmen‘s final moving piece (and collection). Ozymandias is written by Len Wein (co-creator of Wolverine) and drawn by Jae Lee. In this frustrating series, the script struggles to keep pace with great ideas and exquisite artwork. As Wein shows us Adrian Veidt’s journey from crime-fighter to accomplished businessman to world’s savior, we’re met with passages that just don’t pay attention to themselves.

Lee Ozymandias“Pick me up a very large supply of kitty litter,” Veidt tells his assistant, after his first genetic experiment results in the hybridized tiger kitten, Bubastis. Lee’s gorgeous page, colored vibrantly by June Chung, has nothing inherently funny about it–but Wein seems hellbent on sniggering at the whole situation. On the next page, Veidt says, “I’m noted for many things, Marla. My sense of humor has never been one of them.” Bubastis then pees on his silk shirt.

If this gonzo tone is the former editor’s critique of the Before Watchmen project, fine. But Wein also goes out of his way to reconcile Moore’s not-quite-original finale. In his quest to prevent mutually assured nuclear destruction, Veidt searches for inspiration in books and film, particularly science fiction. He eventually watches The Outer Limits, and, after several viewings of “The Architects of Fear” concludes: “The scientists on that TV show simply hadn’t thought big enough–and that was something with which I had no problem.”

A less in-grown, more profound commentary happens later. It involves Ozymandias revealing himself to the press as Veidt (the purple mantle opens Clark Kent-style to reveal a black suit), with this to add:

Once President Nixon unleashed Doctor Manhattan on Vietnam, the rest of us masks quite honestly became superfluous. I’ve decided I can do a lot more good for the world as the head of a multi-billion dollar business than I can as one lone costumed adventurer.

Bruce Wayne, Batman, would never yield the world’s calamities to Superman like this; though fighting poverty and inequality, root causes of crime, is eminently logical, what kind of comic reading would it make? In this regard, Wein taps into the stark realism that shelves Watchmen above all other graphic novels.

More noteworthy, Lee is the project’s only artist to break from Gibbon’s grid paneling and radically succeed. He’s composed pages of sliding disc panels that thematically recall Watchmen‘s iconic smiley face, and Dr. Manhattan’s atomic insignia. Also, Lee’s characteristic heavy use of shadow and silhouettes is tempered anew, and well worth the read.

Ozymandias shares the last hardcover volume with Before Watchmen‘s odds and ends: the two issue Moloch story (by Straczynski and artist Eduardo Risso), a Dollar Bill one-shot (by Wein and the incomparable Nexus illustrator, Steve Rude), and the various “Curse of the Crimson Corsair” tales, collecting the many two-page backup stories from the titles’ individual issues (by Wein and artist John Higgins, original colorist on Watchmen). They’re fun reads, but should be reserved for those who have loved everything else in this uneven series.

So, after an exuberant expenditure of talent and marketing, Before Watchmen seems poised to almost, maybe be remembered in the long run. Cranky Mr. Moore needn’t worry that its mere existence will detract from his timeless, elegant work. After all, comic readers have essentially forgotten that Frank Miller’s legendary The Dark Knight Returns (1986) has a dreadful sequel; viewers still revere the first two Godfather films (1972-74), despite the third.

And yet–

The final pages of Dr. Manhattan‘s title show him travel to a distant galaxy. At night, on a paradisaical planet, the blue super-being kneels down to charge stream water with his own energy. “I cannot wait to see what this new box reveals,” he says, sentimental in the hope that he’s created life.

Perhaps you will become something amazing. And perhaps we will be become something amazing, together. I would like that. I would like that very much.

Justin Hickey is a freelance writer, and editor here at Open Letters Monthly.