To look at the collected editions — or the creative teams for that matter — Before Watchmen: Ozymandias and Before Watchmen: Moloch don’t naturally belong together. The former is written by Len Wein and illustrated by Jae Lee, while the latter is by J. Michael Straczynski and Eduardo Risso, and while both are technically origin stories, it’s not as if little Adrian Veidt shows up in the same school as Edgar Jacobi. So, why do they belong together in this series…?

The answer is twofold. Most obviously, it’s that the two series literally crossover, or at least cover the same ground to a brief extent — namely, Moloch’s involvement in Veldt’s plot to bring about world peace by nefarious, ridiculous means. (Both series include variations on the scene where the Comedian confesses to Moloch in his bedroom, from the original Watchmen, curiously enough.) Maybe more importantly than that, though, it’s that both Moloch and Ozymandias take the prequel brief of Before Watchmen perhaps a little too literally, with final pages that literally lead up to particular scenes in Moore and Gibbons’ original book, after spending far too long explaining things that those who’ve read the original book already know, in exhausting and depressingly literal detail.

It’s no surprise, perhaps, that Ozymandias is the bigger offender of that latter sin, if only because, at six issues, it has more real estate to fill than the two issue Moloch. But Ozymandias is far worse than merely being longer than Moloch — it’s a perfect illustration of the problems with this approach to prequels, because at some point, it goes from an utterly unnecessary exploration of Veidt’s childhood and early crimefighting career, complete with unlikely meetings between the primary Watchmen characters, to essentially Adrian Veidt Explains All Of Watchmen In Case You Didn’t Understand It The First Time.

To call this pointless would be too harsh; after all, there is some genuinely beautiful Jae Lee artwork to help everything out, with his fine linework and exquisite page design offsetting his seemingly permanent disinterest in drawing backgrounds or being aware of where characters actually are in a physical space at any give time. It is a lovely looking series despite that, with Lee’s delicate art balanced and filled out nicely by longtime color partner Jane Chung’s work. Really, it looks so good that it almost gives Ozymandias reason to exist.

Almost.

For all the problems with Wein’s writing in the series — beyond the fact that it is, essentially, just a glorified recap of the original series from the point of view of one character, there’s also the fact that Wein’s dialogue simply sounds too unlike Moore’s to ring true, as well as Wein’s apparent desire to explain everything from the original series, including at one point, a sequence explaining that “Nostalgia,” the fragrance from Watchmen, is so-called because it reminds him of an former love — there are two decisions made in the writing that feel particularly demonstrative of Wein’s apparent desire to address what he presumably saw as problems with the original work.

Firstly, the revelation that Veidt had bugged Moloch’s apartment, allowing him to overhear the Comedian’s confession — with narration explaining that “Jacobi himself would come to me the following morning to report all that had transpired” — in an attempt to paper over the possibility that perhaps the all-seeing, all-knowing Ozymandias had overlooked something… and, more obviously and, depending on your point of view, egregiously, placing the fact that Alan Moore stole the climax of Watchmen from an episode of The Outer Limits into canon, as Veidt himself does the same thing. “I was re-watching the entire run of a relatively short-lived TV series called The Outer Limits when I finally found it,” he explains midway through the series, after searching through sci-fi novels and movies in the hope to find a concept so inhuman as to save the world.

It’s cheeky, so much so I almost appreciate it, but it still does what the rest of the series spends so much time doing: Explaining and retelling things that no-one but fans of the original book would really care about, and doing so in such a way as to fail to illuminate anything to those same fans. Who is Ozymandias for, then? Jae Lee fans, I guess. And, perhaps, Len Wein’s need to “fix” Alan Moore’s writing one last time.

Moloch is more straightforward; Straczynski gives him the Mole Man’s origin, more or less — an ugly child made uglier thanks to a cruel world — with what is essentially a slight, unoriginal story given life by Eduardo Risso’s loose, fun cartooning. Probably the most interesting thing about the series is its format, with the first issue given over to Jacobi’s past all the way up to incarceration, and the second entirely to his post-release relationship with Adrian Veidt. That relationship, of course, was abusive and manipulative in ways that seem almost comedic in scale and intent — it’s not enough to use Jacobi as a pawn, Veidt also has to give him cancer, as well — but Straczynski at least attempts to mine this for some emotional resonance, as opposed to Wein’s sterile, “logical” retelling of the Ozymandias series.

I wrote “attempts,” for obvious reasons; not only is Straczynski not the most capable writer when it comes to mining emotional resonance in his work, but the situation is so cartoonish — especially as portrayed on the page — that it’s impossible to find it anything other then ridiculous and melodramatic… something that Risso plays up even more in his artwork. While Risso’s broadness works for the first issue, especially with the kid Jacobi, it’s less successful in the second issue, at odds with the subtlety Straczynski is clearly trying to push (unsuccessfully) into the story. It’s a shame, because the book still looks good, even as it fights with itself tonally.

Of the two titles, Moloch is almost certainly the more successful, despite that lovely Jae Lee artwork in Ozymandias; it’s less literal, kinder to and more willing to actually engage and explore the origins book as opposed to reiterate and explain it, and, best of all, significantly shorter. Neither series really adds anything to Watchmen or the fictional world is exists in, and in that case, shouldn’t we be grateful for small mercies like a shorter length more than anything else…?

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

For my birthday a few weeks back, I had a couple of beers and then went longbox diving for random things I vaguely remember that are not available digitally, not least because I could then write posts about them here. This is one of those things. 

THE BOOK:  JLA: Created Equal #1-2, a two-issue prestige-format Elseworlds limited series published by DC Comics in 2000.

THE CREATORS: Written by Fabian Nicieza; penciled by Kevin Maguire and inked by Joe Rubenstein; colors by Gloria Vasquez (#1) and Pat Garrahy (#2); and lettered throughout by the great Bob Lappan. Man, do I love Lappan’s lettering over Maguire’s art.

THE CONCEPT: Just as the 21st century started up, DC Comics would publish a self-contained series featuring an exploration of Earth after all the men were killed in a mysterious incident. It is full of fun speculative fiction and a few thoughtful explorations of the concept of a world without men. That series was Y: The Last Man. Two years before that, though, they would publish this limited series, setting the same rough plot in the DC Universe. It is full of, um, pages, mostly. And also depressing prescience.

(Yes, I am aware that neither this series nor Y: The Last Man invented the last-man-alive-in-a-world-of-women concept. It still struck me as odd—and still does!—that DC/Vertigo went to this well twice within two years, albeit in two very different ways.)

Snark aside, the story here is this: Radiation from a cosmic storm kills all the men on Earth. (This happens literally in the turn from page 3 to page 4 of issue #1. This is not a series that spends a lot of time with throat-clearing.) The only known male survivor is Superman; Lex Luthor has also survived in secret, sealed off from the world and working feverishly to understand the cause of the event, and any possible solutions. Also, get this: WOMEN RUN THINGS!!!! LOL!!!! Can you EVEN imagine?!??

Okay—the tone isn’t QUITE that bad, but it’s…I don’t know. Problematic, maybe?

Continue reading

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Before Watchmen: Rorschach was, I think, the series I was least looking forward to in the entire Before Watchmen cycle (with the possible exception of Crimson Corsair, which I’ll get to eventually). I was wary for all kinds of reasons, from a creative team that didn’t particularly interest me to the 1970s setting that felt cliche. Most off-putting of all, however, was the central character.

I know that I’m supposed to find Rorschach compelling, or at least interesting; he gets an issue in the original miniseries dedicated to how fascinating he’s supposed to be — scary enough to shake the self-belief of his experienced therapist, despite how stereotypical his backstory is, apparently — but he’s always fallen flat for me; an character whose appeal lost its luster when it served as much as a model for certain schools of thought about Batman’s psyche as it did a parody of Steve Ditko’s Mr. A and the Question. The prospect of a mini-series by Brian Azzarello and Lee Bermejo spending time with that guy? No, thank you.

The surprise of Rorschach, then, is that the lead character may share a name, mask, and freckles with Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ character, but he’s not the same guy. The difference isn’t just the eight-year-gap between stories, either; the Walter Kovacs that appears in the Rorschach series has more in common with certain readings of Marvel’s Punisher than the fragile figure Moore and Gibbons delivered, and his series — separated from the other tropes and flavors of Watchmen — feels more like a generic retro thriller that glorifies exploitation stories from the 1970s without noting that the original versions of those stories tended to put someone other than a straight white dude at their center.

(The racial politics of Rorschach are one of many sticking points to me, muddied only slightly by the indistinct coloring that makes me wonder whether the main villain, Rawhead, is supposed to be white or not; nonetheless, a book where the white guy complains about the rest of the world falling to savagery and corruption and the majority of those he’s fighting are people of color is a very bad idea.)

Narratively, the series disappoints because it buys into the simple morality of the character a little too much for my liking, offering up something that argues as much for might makes right and an overwhelming element of chaos as anything else; a worldview that many would embrace as valid, if not realistic, but one that doesn’t necessarily make for a satisfying read. What to make of the serial killer who opens the series, but goes essentially unexplored for the majority of the story, only to assault the woman Rorschach was potentially interested in, leading to a final sequence where he takes revenge behind a window blind?

Indeed, what to make of that romance plot, which isn’t exactly a romance plot — does he ask Nancy to dinner because it’s a date, or to thank her for taking him to the hospital? Ultimately, it becomes the most obvious Women in Refrigerators riff, but stripped down in such a way as to lampshade how cliched it is. Is this… metacommentary? Laziness? Somewhere in between?

Nancy, of course, is just one of an army of bit players throughout the story, lending little (if not nothing) to proceedings beyond schtick and whatever awkward plot contrivance is required of them. While Lee Bermejo and colorist Barbara Ciardo try to instill some weird semblance of life to each of them in an art style that feels far too realistic for this world, both in terms of Gibbons’ aesthetic in the original series and Azzarello’s cartoonish writing, there’s nothing to be done; Rorschach himself may come across as more two-dimensional than his earlier incarnation in this series, but he’s still infinitely more complex than everyone around him.

Amusingly — or, perhaps, exactly the opposite — after all my complaints about the real world figures making cameos in Azzarello’s Comedian, perhaps the most egregious moment in Rorschach is a cameo of a fictional character: at one point, Rorschach is rescued by none other than Taxi Driver‘s Travis Bickle, who complains about the state of the city as one might expect. Taxi Driver came out a year earlier than when Rorschach is set, which ends up nagging at me for reasons I can’t fully explain: did he know he got the dates wrong? Is there some meaning there? Is it just a lazy mid-70s gritty New York story in-joke that I’m reading too much into?

Talking of the era, it still seems strange to me that Rorschach is set during 1977, and makes almost no reference to the events referenced as taking place during that year in the original Watchmen. 1977 in Moore and Gibbons’ book isn’t just another year — it’s the year the Keene Act was passed, outlawing vigilantes and costumed crimefighters, following riots caused in part by police officers striking because they felt that they were being undermined by superheroes. Rorschach was the one vigilante to refuse to go along with the law by either retiring or working for the authorities… and this is barely hinted at in Rorschach, inexplicably, despite the fact that it would have to be happening around the exact period this story takes place during. (The panel above is pretty much the sum total of its impact on the series.)

(In a smaller, less important moment of discontinuity, Rorschach as seen here feels out of step with the version seen at the end of the Nite Owl series, who has already started carrying around the “End is Nigh” sign he’ll still be holding in 1985, when the original series opened. Perhaps we should just pretend that this series happened on Earth-Watchmen-2 or something.)

Is Rorschach a missed opportunity? I can’t say for sure, because I’d be lying if I said it felt like much of an opportunity in the first place. It certainly is something that fails on almost every front, however, and abandons the chance to try to deepen its central character in favor of something that’s a minor work on behalf of both of its primary creators. As its central character would put it: Hurm.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

The idea that a J. Michael Straczynski comic — any J. Michael Straczynski comic — could add emotional depth to an Alan Moore comic feels like the punchline to some joke that can’t really exist, and yet… Before Watchmen: Nite Owl kind of does that very thing, as unlikely as that seems, with a story that on almost every single level embraces and hews to every expectation and cliche that you could imagine. How did that happen?

For those who don’t know, Nite Owl rests on a simple (and, yes, kind of obvious) idea: Inspired by the scene in Watchmen where Laurie finds the photo of the Twilight Lady, and Dan brushes it off as a gift from a villain who “had sort of a fixation. She was a very sick woman,” Straczynski decides that, no, Dan was obviously lying, and there’s a relationship there he doesn’t want to talk about. That relationship — a love affair where the Twilight Lady eventually leaves, because she “can’t afford” to be in love (I told you it was cliched) — is at the heart of a story that, in all other ways, is a mess of plot elements and character moments that fail to come together or seem in any way organic, but unlike everything else in the book, it kind of works.

And in (kind of) working, it adds something to that Watchmen scene, and also — for me, at least — to Dan’s relationship with Laurie, offering potential explanations, or at least the beginnings of same, for quite why he’s so passive with and possessive of her. It actually, surprisingly, unbelievably, adds to the original book in a way that I would never have expected. The rest of the book, however, fails to do anything of the sort.

It’s clear from Nite Owl, and even the far more troubling Dr. Manhattan series, that Stracyznski has studied his Watchmen; he’s memorized the dialogue, he knows the plot and he can probably tell you the page number where Nostalgia is first mentioned and in what context. Unfortunately, that devotion to the original smothers his writing here, and I say that as someone who finds JMS to be an artificial, mechanical writer at the best of times. So you end up getting everything you’d expect from a Watchmen fan (The first meeting between Dan and Mason! The first meeting between Dan and Laurie! Nite Owl and Rorschach fighting crime together in their prime!), but in a way that makes you realize that you didn’t actually want to see any of that, because the versions in your imagination were far better. Consider it a metaphor for all of Before Watchmen as a whole, perhaps.

There are, of course, moments of particular shame: The sheer fucking laziness of using the “He’s a religious leader who turns out to be a crazy pervert serial killer” plot, for one thing — never forget that Straczynski wrote for Murder She Wrote, I guess — which is even stranger considering that the Twilight Lady is herself a sex worker and presented in such a way that both echoes Straczynski’s prostitute character from Superman: Earth One and makes me genuinely curious what his fascination is with sex workers as characters (I think he’s so close to doing something interesting and de-stigmatizing sex workers, but he can’t quite bring himself to entirely drop the salaciousness. Maybe one day…). Is Straczynski a prude, or commenting on prudishness?

And even worse, of all the things for the Nite Owl series to include, there’s also the origin of Rorschach’s “The End Is Nigh” sign, which… Well, really; maybe this is the ideal metaphor for Before Watchmen as a whole. In what world did that seem like anything approaching a good idea? Spoilers: Rorschach rescues it from a fire in the church where the pervert priest was keeping lots of corpses, because of course he did.

I’ve made it this far without talking about the art, which perhaps speaks to its importance to the overall book. Andy Kubert’s pencils are exactly what you’d expect from him, to be blunt; they do the job, but he doesn’t really deliver the talking heads and slow action that the script demands of him with any particular style or the excessive formalist detail that you might expect from a Watchmen-related work. (Surprisingly, Straczynski doesn’t seem to write that into this script.)

By far the most interesting thing about the way the book looks comes from its inks. For half of the series, they come from Joe Kubert, whose looseness with the brush brings an air and space to the artwork that Andy Kubert’s work generally lacks. Unfortunately, Joe died midway through the series, and the rest of the inks come from Bill Sienkiewicz, who provides a genuinely odd job: perhaps out of a desire to provide something resembling visual continuity, it’s the least Sienkiewicz-y inking job I’ve seen, but he remains a tighter, sketchier inker than Joe K, meaning that everything becomes noticeably more… anxious and uptight. It’s a strange combination, and not an altogether successful one.

Nite Owl, then, isn’t something I’d recommend to anyone other than a Watchmen or Straczynski completist, or someone like me wondering just where the JMS/Sex Worker thing is actually going, and whether it’s a good thing or not. But, I promise, despite that: the Twilight Lady/Nite Owl relationship does kind of work. It’s the one saving grace of the whole thing, and it really did, for me, add something to the original book.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

For my birthday a few weeks back, I had a couple of beers and then went longbox diving for random things I vaguely remember that are not available digitally, not least because I could then write posts about them here. This is one of those things. A formatting note on this specific book: this was a beaten up, yellowed version of the original trade paperback with pages coming loose, so I was loath to try to wedge it into my scanner. As a result, the images below are pics taken by hand with my phone, with some attempted color-balancing by me after the fact to decrease the yellowing and kill the glare. I apologize to literally every human being involved in the creation of this book for the resulting butchery.

THE BOOK:  Machine Man TPB, collecting a four-issue limited series published by Marvel Comics in 1984-1985 (which STUNNED me–I hadn’t looked at the date before sitting down to write this, and I would’ve bet cash money on 1986 or 1987).

THE CREATORS: Written by Tom DeFalco; layouts on #1-3 by Herb Trimpe; finishes on #1-3, plot and art on #4, and colors throughout by the mighty Barry Windsor-Smith.

THE CONCEPT: In 1980, Tom Defalco wrote the last few issues of the original Machine Man book (following Marv Wolfman’s departure) with art by Steve Ditko, capping off a series that started with nine issues of Jack Kirby. I have never read those issues, but I assume this was some kind of a triumphant return to the character–only this time spun into the unfathomably far-off future year of 2020. Annnnnnnnnnnnnnd that’s the high concept: Machine Man wakes up in 2020, where he has some adventures. The end. (“Alternate history Flash is paralyzed saving JFK and becomes an archaeologist on Mars” this is not.) Or maybe the high-concept is just “Go to it, Barry Windsor-Smith.” I dunno.

 

Continue reading

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

At some point in its development process, I can only assume that Before Watchmen: Comedian seemed not only like a good idea, but a coherent one. Despite the final product, I have to believe there was some point where Brian Azzarello was explaining his story to the editors and executives and managed to make it sound as if there was a through line where actions had consequences and there was character development that seemed to make sense as Eddie Blake went from best friends to the Kennedys to Vietnam and back, as hard as it seems. It’s just that the comic makes it so hard to do so.

In theory, Comedian is a six issue series about… Blake’s increasing disillusionment with the world, I guess…? I’m trying to come up with some kind of order to impose on the astoundingly meandering, formless, repetitive story that Azzarello provides in this series, but that might be pointless — or, indeed, missing Azzarello’s point. Perhaps — to be generous — the shapelessness, the flab and the lack of direction is intentional, a lesson in just how chaotic and meaningless the world really is as if nihilism can be communicated via formalist play. (Spoilers: It can’t, and that reading is astonishingly generous, to the point of being laughably wrongheaded.)

In reality, Comedian is a series flooded by Azzarello’s flop sweat, informed by a clear sense that he thinks he’s writing something important. For all of his regular tics — Azzarello cannot avoid shitty wordplay if his life depended on it, I suspect, and he loves to run dialogue across panels via em dashes, with the last word appearing on the subsequent panel and/or page — this is something that feels as if it’s constantly trying too hard to be meaningly and making a statement, with each attempt coming across as forced and unsuccessful.

In many ways, it’s a How To guide of what not to do in similar circumstances:

  • Don’t tie your character in to too many real world historical events (In this series alone, Blake visits Marilyn Monroe on the night of her death, kills Bobby Kennedy — spoilers! — and sets off the Watts riots, in addition to the whole JFK and Vietnam things alluded to in the original Watchmen)
  • Don’t have lift heavily and obviously from existing pop culture about the same period (Pop music lyrics and stretched, angled shots implying a disconnect from reality were cliches in Vietnam stories twenty years before this was made, it feels like; seeing them included here is a strangely disorienting experience, as if the book is auto-critiquing and saying, Go and watch something else instead)
  • Don’t forget to have an actual plot, because without that there’s no fucking point to the series.

I can’t stress that last point enough. Of all the Before Watchmen projects, Comedian is the one that seems to have no actual character arc or narrative drive; things just happen and the Comedian grins his way through them being a bad ass that’s idolized by the comic. For all the characters who pay lip service to the fact that Eddie Blake is, for all intents and purposes, a violent sociopath as likely to undermine the status quo as he is to defend it, the comic itself can’t help but swoon in his presence: Men want to be him! Women want to be with him! And, sure, he’s given to acting completely irrationally and spouting nihilistic platitudes, but in this particular comic, that’s pretty much true of every single character, so… there’s that, I guess…?

In light of Azzarello’s failure, it would be great to report that J.G. Jones steps up and saves the series with some great artwork, but it wouldn’t be true. Admittedly, he’s not helped by some garish colors by Alex Sinclair — who I honestly feel is one of the most overrated colorists in comics; his palette always feels too on the nose and lacking in subtlety, with some panels here in particular suffering from genuinely breathtakingly loud gradients — but all of Jones’ flaws are on show here: his characters feel like posed mannequins, with no dynamism or movement present whatsoever. No texture, either, but that’s something that can be said of everything in Jones’ artwork: the eye glosses over everything as if it’s all been formed out of the same sheet of plastic just seconds before you see it. When half of your comic takes place in the middle of the Vietnam War, and it looks pretty much the same as the urban U.S. scenes elsewhere, or the scenes on a beach in Hawaii, I feel something is off in your artwork. Maybe that’s just me.

At one point — the aforementioned Hawaii scene — I thought to myself that Comedian feels like a shitty James Bond movie. It’s the ease of the violence, the fetishization of those who supply it, and the shitty puns that put that thought in my head. (“So what do you want to do?” says a sultry woman to Blake in the scene, and he responds, “Lei you.” But it gets worse; “You gotta rubber?” she asks, to which he responds, “A rubber? Hell no… I’m all the protection I need.” Get it? Do you fucking get it?) But i’m wrong, of course. With the lack of plot and the obsession with celebrity cameos, there’s another movie that works as a far better comparison. Somehow, despite the fact that no-one could have wanted this, Comedian is nothing as much as the Zelig of Before Watchmen. Now there is a recommendation they’ll stick on the reissue.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Previously on Baxter Building: For once, the What Has Come Before of it all is pretty important for these issues, so here’s what you really need to know: The Thing left the Fantastic Four at the end of Secret Wars to stay in space, and in his absence, his girlfriend Alicia ended up getting together with — and eventually marrying — his former teammate the Human Torch. When he eventually came back to Earth, he went through an unconvincing tough guy phase, but just when you think he’s gotten to some kind of emotional catharsis… Steve Englehart shows up to make things really uncomfortable for everyone involved.

0:00:00-0:15:20: We open things up, somewhat unexpectedly, with a summation of the issues to come. Chalk it up to my excitement over the arrival of Steve Englehart as series writer, and the soap operatics he brings with him. But are those soap operatics too much? Jeff and I spoil some of the plot elements lying ahead as we discuss Jeff’s misgivings over where Englehart goes, and more importantly, how far he goes with some of the dysfunctional pieces of his Fantastic Four, before jumping straight into…


0:15:21-0:31:43:
Fantastic Four #304, in which Quicksilver arrives as a villain and also an analog for the Thing, although that is curiously underplayed in an issue where almost nothing is underplayed. Plus, the FF rejoins the Marvel Universe, the way the Englehart era is already different from the Byrne era, Englehart’s work co-existing with the Englehart legacy as the Marvel Universe, and the best Roy Thomas impression you’ve ever heard.


0:31:44-0:42:40:
Is Ben Grimm more of a monster than we’re willing to admit? FF #305 makes a good case that the answer is yes, but it’s not because he’s made of orange rocks. Jeff and I talk about Ben’s bad decisions, the emotional complications that feel at once soap operatic and honestly complex, and the ways in which the series continues to shift with each issue while still feeling utterly organic.


0:42:41-0:54:25:
It’s the surprise Fantastic Four Annual #20 that I didn’t know we were going to be covering this time around — but that turns out to be a very happy accident, as we get two times the Doctor Doom (and both Jeff and I love Englehart’s Doctor Doom) and the best Reed Richards we’ve probably seen during the entire run of the series. All this, and at least two bits of story that are just so good that we couldn’t help but comment on them (as well as the answer to the question, “Why should you always take the first deal Doctor Doom offers?”) — face it, friends: this might be the Mighty Marvel Age of “Guess That Was A Good Thing We Had An Annual To Read, After All!”


0:54:26-1:22:29:
The arrival of Sharon Ventura in FF #306 brings with it discussions of both John Buscema’s appreciation of the opportunity to show regular folks on the street in New York City, and our discomfort with Sharon’s backstory and how fucked up it is that “gang rape as character motivation” managed to actually make it into print, especially during the period where comics were still ostensibly being at least partially targeted at kids. As Jeff puts it, “Steve Englehart, please!” There’s also brief discussion about a never-followed-up-on direction for the Inhumans, and whether or not the book has slipped out of the definition of what you expect from Fantastic Four as a series.


1:22:30-1:34:20:
The highpoint of Fantastic Four #307? That would be John Buscema and Joe Sinnott’s artwork, which we both define as an amazing swan song for the team on the book, which is embarrassing because they stay on the book for another couple of issues. But you know who is leaving? Reed, Sue and Franklin who leave the book forever with this issue! (Note: It’s not as forever as people believed at the time.) Meantime, Diablo displays all-new powers, and Jeff overshares about his personal hygiene. But, really, it’s all about the Buscema/Sinnott artwork. Here’s the Franklin panel Jeff was talking about:

1:34:21-1:53:47: FF #308 introduces the racist character find of 1987, Fasaud! But if the mix of Max Headroom and fear of Arabic nations isn’t enough, there’s also a nice moment of confusion on behalf of the Fantastic Four, a moment of betrayal for the Human Torch — even if Jeff and I manage to almost forget to explain what that’s actually about — and a discussion about whether or not Fasaud is Kirbyish in the strangest manner imaginable (and perhaps the 1980s Doctor Doom, in Jeff’s mind). And even more creepiness between Ben and Sharon, and I remind everyone just how creepy Steve Englehart’s Green Lantern Corps run.


1:52:48-2:09:02:
Aware of just how long this episode is running, we run through a recap of Fantastic Four #309 and get to #310, where we can’t help ourselves talking about new series artist Keith Pollard — or, if you’re Jeff, Ron Wilson — and the dynamism he brings to what should be a fairly lackluster conclusion to the Fasaud three-parter, despite the sly political commentary just under the surface. At least we can take some joy from the awkward date between Johnny, Alicia and Crystal. Oh, and by the end of #310, the team has an extra Thing to deal with…


2:09:03-2:21:30:
As if this run hasn’t been weirdly off-kilter before this point, FF #311 — which is genuinely titled, “I Want To Die!” — ends up being far too dark for Jeff, and it’s surprisingly not because of panels like the above. As we discuss a suicidal Sharon, an unthinking Ben and the respect between monarchs and quite how dark is appropriately dark for this particular superhero comic, we find allusions to Jonathan Hickman and my being far more forgiving to Steve Englehart’s intentions than he perhaps deserves. Maybe that’s how I feel with the darkness.


2:21:31-2:33:17:
How to come back from what is probably the most disturbing comics in this entire series? Well, to judge by Fantastic Four #312, the trick is to bring in X-Factor for a guest shot. Sales figures and my childlike sense of joy and wonder fall under the verbal microscope as we witness what appears to be the end of all the neuroses that have been driving the series for the past few issues. Who’d’ve thought that an X-Factor cameo would bring an end to the worst of the soap opera…?


2:33:18-2:44:30:
If FF #313 feels like a letdown — and it does — that might simply be because it’s less fueled by emotional dysfunction or bad decision-making than it is good old-fashioned plot mechanics (and, as Jeff points out, a retcon about FF #296, but that’s nothing new). The Mole Man makes a very short return, but to be honest, I’m more concerned about off-model Ben Grimm and Johnny being unimpressed by Ben’s chat-up lines.


2:44:31-end:
We wind down to the end of the episode by talking about the ways in which the series has changed in such a short period of issues, and looking forward to what lies ahead, including an appearance by none other than the Beyonder. (We’ll be doing Fantastic Four #s 314-324 next time, for those looking by the numbers.) While you’re waiting for that to happen, feel free to check out our Twitter, Tumblr and Patreon. As always, thanks for being patient with incredibly long episodes, and also delayed show notes. We’re doing it all out of love, even if it doesn’t feel like it at the time, I promise…!

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

To call Before Watchmen: Dollar Bill superfluous is, in itself, somewhat superfluous. The one-shot, by Len Wein and Steve Rude, wasn’t one of the originally announced titles, and only appeared when things changed behind the scenes, and the proposed Epilogue one-off was bumped off the to-do list — and let’s, for a brief second, think about how absolutely unnecessary an epilogue to a prequel actually is, so dumping it was a good decision — and, to be honest, it feels very much like an afterthought on almost every single level.

The problem isn’t necessarily that there’s nothing in the backstory of William Benjamin Brady that means that there couldn’t be an interesting story told about him. The circumstances around his death, as portrayed in the original Watchmen — as well as the concept of a corporate mascot who tries to go legit — should offer grist for a mill that’s at least midway interesting, at least.

And yet, Wein insists on offering up a script that is the most generic story imaginable, combining the very specific — yet somehow overused — tale of a football hero brought low by injury who gets a chance to redeem himself through a twist of fate and… Well, you can guess the rest, really. To make matters worse, the few touches that Wein adds to the cliche are… troubling, shall we say. “I don’t know any straight guy in his right mind who would ever wear that outfit,” says Brady when shown the Dollar Bill costume for the first time by the owners of the National Bank, just minutes after another character had declared that he’d never wear the outfit because “it’d make me look like some kind’a fag.”

Oh, and the owners of the bank — identical businessmen called, I shit you not, “Misters Howe, Cheatem and Dewey,” because of course — are, of course, untrustworthy liars who only care about money and in case you didn’t hear the dogwhistle, have dialogue like this: “Would we lie to you, boychik? Go. Have a good time. Let us know how it works out.” “Don’t know about the rest of you, but I could go for a nice pastrami on rye right about now.” That is, I shit you not, a real exchange in this comic. So, yes: it’s a comic where the story is one you’ve read countless times before, filled with lazy homophobic and racism. Is there anything to like about it?

The answer to that is, “well, potentially.” Steve Rude’s artwork is perhaps more mannered than his best work — his figures seem stiffer and more static than I remembered from Nexus — but even with that, he’s an amazing artist with beautifully stylized line work; the pages where he joins the Minutemen are genuinely beautiful, cementing that Rude is a great artist for “classic” superhero comics with interchangeable smiling men in masks and pin-up art in the place of women. (That’s actually meant in a complimentary manner, despite how it reads.)

Even the visuals of the book are ultimately ruined, though, by Rude’s own lettering, which is awkward and draws attention to itself by being just a little too big and too heavy for its own good. The lettering dominates the pages, which is the very opposite of what you’d want it to do. I assume that Rude lettering was some kind of contractual obligation to get him to sign onto the book, but it was a terrible decision not to fight it. The letters absolutely doom the pages and make you long for Todd Klein or whoever to step in and stage an intervention.

Dollar Bill, then, is a pretty bad comic. It’s not the worst of Before Watchmen by a long stretch, but it is probably the most boring, which could be considered the worst sin of all by some. It also stands out as one of the two most inessential strands of the entire project (alongside Crimson Corsair, although Moloch really pushes that envelope as well). Still, they can’t all be winners… which almost feels like it’s the most thematically consistent thing about Dollar Bill’s spotlight as a whole, really.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

For my birthday a few weeks back, I had a couple of beers and then went longbox diving for random things I vaguely remember that are not available digitally, not least because I could then write posts about them here. This is one of those things.

THE BOOK:  Flashpoint #1-3, a limited series published by DC comics in 1999-2000 under the Elseworlds banner. This book was was either so good or so unmemorable that DC has gone on to reuse the title in both print and TV without ever seeming to remember that they’d already used it once! (Seriously: the writer’s entry on the DC Comics website links to the first three issues of the much-later Geoff Johns series instead of the actual book.)

THE CREATORS: Written by Pat McGreal, art by Norm Breyfogle, colors by Noelle Giddings, letters by Rick Parker.

THE CONCEPT: The high-concept backstory is the key here: In an alternate timeline of the DC Universe, Silver Age Flash Barry Allen is shot in the spine while saving John F. Kennedy from the assassination attempt in Dallas. Paralyzed from the neck down, Allen’s only remaining power is his super-speed brain. The world spins off from there.

 

Continue reading

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Amanda Conner and Darwin Cooke’s Silk Spectre is, on some levels, the most faithful of the entire Before Watchmen project. Not only does it begin with a reference to a scene from the original book — the breaking of the snow globe that is hijacked into Dr. Manhattan’s narrative in #9 — but Amanda Conner approaches the visuals of the whole thing with Dave Gibbons clearly in mind; it’s not just that she adopts Watchmen‘s nine panel grid for the majority of the series (There’s one sequence where she breaks the format, and it’s both smart and cute; as Laurie gets high on LSD, the format starts literally falling in on itself), she’s clearly paid attention to Gibbons’ eye throughout the entire thing, and works to recreate his staging in a number of places. Of all the Before Watchmen books, Silk Spectre feels like the one that has spent the most time actually paying attention to Watchmen.

It feels strange to call Conner the unsung hero of Silk Spectre; she co-wrote it with Cooke and drew it, after all. Her’s is the largest contribution to the series, and yet, somehow I feel that she was nonetheless overshadowed by Cooke upon release. Comparing Silk Spectre with Minutemen, it’s clear that Conner was an active voice in writing the book — both in terms of overall tone and individual charactertization, this book reads very differently from Cooke’s solo series.

It’s more fractured and less chronological (More of the Moore Watchmen influence, again), less insular and more curious and concerned with the outside world rather than the internal narrative of its leads — as the original Watchmen explored the 1980s, this takes place for the most part in 1966 San Francisco, with Laurie dropping out into a sanitized version of the counter culture — and, ultimately, more willing to allow its characters to be complicated and contradictory without smoothing out the edges for readers. Once again, it feels more true to what Moore and Gibbons were aiming for in the original book.

It’s tempting to say that this series outstrips its predecessor in a couple of ways, which would be entirely unfair — not only does Silk Spectre have different ambitions than Watchmen, it’s noticeably less ambitious (Although, I hasten to add, I don’t mean that as an insult in any way; Watchmen‘s ambition is its undoing in many ways, for me). Nonetheless, Silk Spectre‘s characters feel genuinely complicated and alive for me in a way that Watchmen‘s never do, with the latter book feeling the hand of its writer all too clearly, shuffling pawns around the board the entire time. Similarly — and perhaps sensibly, considering it’s the sole female-led Watchmen project — it manages to offer up the most three-dimensional, non-cliched women in the entire franchise. Not that that’s hard; Watchmen — the original book and also the larger storyline with all of this Before Watchmen ancillary material — is depressingly, claustrophobically, male.

The teenage Laurie is at the center of Silk Spectre, and Conner and Cooke lay groundwork for Watchmen that deepens her portrayal in that book significantly, both in terms of her complicated relationship with her mother, but also the ways in which her actions in the mid-80s are fueled by a more optimistic, stubborn and ultimately tragic self from two decades earlier. Sally, too, benefits from being shown as something other than the broken figure she comes across as in Moore and Gibbons’ work; there’s something unsettlingly rewarding about seeing her actively being a complicated figure who, over and over again, demonstrates how difficult she is to love, instead of simply having other characters tell the reader in pointed terms.

(In this, Silk Spectre completes a makeover started in Minutemen, in which Sally’s relationship with Larry is flipped so that she’s seen as the dominant one with Larry far more of a nebbish background figure than he comes across in the original Watchmen. Stripping one layer of victim away from Sally sits easier with me than I suspect others would feel, if only because the women in Watchmen have always felt particularly artificial and “male-gaze”-y in my eyes; YMMV, as the internet reminds us.)

Silk Spectre is far from perfect — the analogies of pop culture figures feels really strange and cowardly, especially given their importance to the overall plot, and it doesn’t get around to finishing its thoughts on some of the themes raised early on, particularly on how Sally’s sexuality informs Laurie’s behavior — but it’s probably the best of the Before Watchmen books on a number of levels. That’s not intended as merely faint praise; it’s a solid showcase for Conner not just as artist, but as writer, as well. Laurie is perhaps the most absent of the core Watchmen cast, but this mini feels like the showcase she deserved all along.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail