August 25, 2013

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Before Watchmen: Nite Owl/Dr. Manhattan

Written by J. Michael Straczynski
Illustrated by Andy Kubert, Joe Kubert, and Bill Sienkiewicz (Nite Owl)
Illustrated by Adam Hughes (Dr. Manhattan)
Illustrated by Eduardo Risso (Moloch)

Written and Illustrated by Darwyn Cooke (Minutemen)
Written by Darwyn Cooke and Amanda Conner (Silk Spectre)
Illustrated by Amanda Connor (Silk Spectre)
DC Comics

Haunted by a mother who never spoke up, Dan Dreiberg takes solace in his hero, Nite Owl, until he's moved into the role himself. Now trying to be the hero his mentor wants him to be and paired with the ruthlessly single-minded Rorschach, Dan struggles to be the hero he wants to be in a world that will push you as far as you let it.

Aware of past, present, and future, Dr. Manhattan broods on what might have been, then takes action to make it so. Unfortunately, it has unforeseen circumstances, leading to a splintered multiverse with disastrous outcomes. The only way to make it right might be to create a tragic ending for untold thousands and even Dr. Manhattan himself. It's a lot of philosophy and theoretical physics--and no guaranteed right answer.

Hidden within the shadows of the Watchmen universe, Moloch reoccurs time and time again. Now, about to die, he tells his story, hoping for redemption by sacrificing himself for the sins of the world.

All three are stories in the time...Before Watchmen.

I am aware that in certain circles, these comics were very controversial, appearing as they did when creators rights fights were flaring all over the place. But I think they need to be separated from that and looked at as comics, not as part of a political issue within the comics community. My goal here is to tell you whether or not they might be worth reading to you as comics.

As a dual piece of disclosure:  1) I think Watchmen is a good maxi-series that is highly overrated in the comics canon and 2) DC was kind enough to provide me with a review copy of this collection. (Thanks!)

JMS is one of those writers that is either hit or miss for me. For example, I own the first several trades of his Amazing Spider-Man run, which given they're a) a re-purchase for me and b) I've pared over 50% of my trades in the past three years is really saying something. On the other hand, starting with Gwen Stacy having sex with Norman Osborn, I couldn't stand his work with Peter Parker, eventually dropping the book after he turned Peter into a bully.

So I wasn't sure what to expect in this collection, but I was pleasantly surprised after finishing it. His portrayal of Nite Owl and Rorschach's relationship is absolutely amazing. In many ways, the book is just as much about Rorschach as it is Nite Owl, showing us an amazing parallel between them. Both were in abusive families and both turned to fighting for justice. The difference is that while Dan finds Hollis Mason, who channels his anger and tempers his rage, Rorschach has no such guide and drifts into the waiting arms of a preacher who is anything but saintly. Both men must eventually move away from their guides, and seeing them do this the resulting consequences for everyone is part of the magic of this story.

While some might be disappointed that this is more of a co-feature than just a spotlight, I think it was the perfect way to write the story of Nite Owl. Dan is a nice guy, an everyman, who wants to do the right thing. On its own, that's kinda boring. But set it against Rorschach and pair him with a woman of dubious morality and motive, and he's able to shine in the contrast. Like us, Dan wants what's right, but may fail in getting there. His growth drives the story, even if it's not the only growth we see.

I was also impressed with how this story (and the others in this collection) tied in to the work of Darwyn Cooke.  These books came out around the same time as DC's New 52 initiative, and story coordination in DC's new paradigm has been...uneven, to use a charitable term. On the other hand, there's not a single thing in this collection that contradicts Cooke's work with the original Nite Owl (Mason) and we even get echoes of certain scenes, seen this time from a different perspective.

A final reason to love this story is the artwork. Andy Kubert is the penciller, but the true love here is for the inkers, his father Joe and, when Joe died during the series, Bill Sienkiewicz. The elder Kubert's inks really give a rougher edge to his son's lines, adding shadow and depth that really enhance his work. In a story like this one, having a Jim Lee-like look would be out of place. A layer of grime is added over top of the solid layouts, made just sketchy enough to be a tough city background. I was worried that Sienkiewicz taking over the inks would bury Andy Kubert entirely, but he's extremely restrained here, to the point that it would take a big fan of his work to notice the difference in inkers. THAT really impressed me. Things do get a bit messier in overall composition when he takes the reins, but it's still Andy Kupert's style, just roughed up a bit. The blending works well, and in the end, this is a story whose visuals match the quality of the script.

Unfortunately, that match isn't quite so good with the Dr. Manhattan story. Adam Hughes is a very good cover artist. In some ways, his stiffer figure work is a better match visually for Dave Gibbons. His depictions of the characters here are really good. He even gets that Dr. Manhattan can't be "stacked" because his exposed penis is a reference to his impotence to change history (at least I think it is). Each design is unique, and he flips between time periods effortlessly, even doing a solid job on likenesses.

But with a story as complex as the one JMS gives him, the art works a bit against the story. It would have been better, I think to combine Hughes with someone else, to really show the varying timelines to be starkly different, or find an artist better able to differentiate. As it stands, as we move across the changing worlds created by the extremely philosophical nature of JMS's story. In some ways, this was an attempt to try something along the lines that Alan Moore himself did in Promethea, with trying to make the story push the edges of what a comic book could do. I just don't think Hughes was up to the task.

I did really like how JMS gives Dr. Manhatten a problem that's enough to vex him. He's stupidly powerful. Using him against common criminals would have been moronic. Having him walk through his life and analyze it (which is what I feared was going to happen) would have been boring. Instead, JMS has Manhattan play god with himself, and ends up nearly breaking the entire world. It's a great story for a character who's tricky to get right, I think.

Last up in here is the Moloch story. Added late to the Before Watchmen groups, it's only two issues long, but that's just enough time, I think. This could have been a throwaway story about villainy, but instead JMS works it into a tale of redemption, at least in the main character's eyes. Moloch is a boy born with physical defects, and the brutality of his peers drives him to murder that, while not acceptable, is certainly understandable. The progression from magician to murderer is done so well, and showing how he felt about the various superheroes attacking him and his attempts to get out of the circle after so many years of repeat failures is a nice commentary on the superhero genre. JMS really nails the repetition and tedium of the cycle of villain vs hero, even if it is one of my favorite styles of comics.

As we move through the story, the idea of the villain shifting from Moloch to Ozymandias, known to the reader but not to Moloch, is a smooth and subtle transition. For just a brief moment, Moloch doubts that he has done any good at all, then is calmed by the notion that he is playing a part in what he refers to as a magic trick. The seamless transition back to his start is great storytelling by JMS, and it's nailed by Risso's visuals.

I'm a huge fan of Risso's work, even if he is often paired with Brian Azzarello, whose writing alternates from brilliant to racist, depending on his subject. He does so much with this two-parter, transforming Moloch from loser to power broker to loser again, just by subtly changing his appearance and body language. His scenes in the first issue really set up the text, especially when we begin the murders. His angular work is quite different from that of the Kuberts or Hughes, really making this one stand out on its own. He uses shadow to obscure truths, places panels at odd, disconcerting angles, and does a ton of character work just in little facial ticks. Risso also gets the best panel in the entire collection, showing Ozymandias in a Jesus-like pose, ready to redeem Moloch. I have no idea if that was in the script or Risso's idea, but it's brilliant work.

This collection of Before Watchmen stories isn't quite as good as the first one I read, but if you are a fan of these characters or the creators involved, don't be afraid to look this one up. It's got very good stories to tell you, if you can get past the hype from those who believed they never should have seen print and are definitely recommended.