Review: Before Watchmen: The Comedian & Rorschach by Brian Azzarello, J.G. Jones & Lee Bermejo

Before Watchmen: The Comedian & Rorschach
Written by Brian Azzarelo
Illustrated by JG Jones & Lee Bermejo

DC Comics
I received an e-ARC from the publisher in return for a review.
Releases July 16, 2013
256 pages
Comics / Superheroes

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The controversial, long-awaited prequels to the best-selling graphic novel of all-time are finally here: BEFORE WATCHMEN! For over twenty years, the back stories of the now iconic characters from Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon's landmark graphic novel have remained a mystery, until now. DC Comics has assembled the greatest creators in the industry to further paint the world of WATCHMEN, with this second volume starring two of the most polarizing anti-heroes ever, COMEDIAN and RORSCHACH. 

Eisner Award-winning writer and creator of 100 Bullets Brian Azzarello brings his gritty, nuanced storytelling to these two recognizable characters. In RORSCHACH, Azzarello again teams with superstar artist Lee Bermejo (JOKER, LUTHOR, BATMAN/DEATHBLOW) to illustrate how one of most dangerous vigilantes the comic world has ever seen became even darker. COMEDIAN, featuring art by J.G. Jones (FINAL CRISIS, Wanted), plants the famed war hero within the context of American history, as we find out how the Vietnam War and the Kennedy assassination revolve around him. 

Collects BEFORE WATCHMEN: COMEDIAN 1-6 and BEFORE WATCHMEN: RORSCHACH 1-4.

I wonder why DC choose to have each author write two different characters’ story arcs while having different illustrators for every series. Even despite the different artists, there’s a thematic sameness from one story to the next in most cases as each artist seems to imitate Dave Gibbons without actually, you know, imitating Dave Gibbons. That weird sort of homage to the original artist hooks these different stories together a bit better than the plots themselves. Even with characters shifting into other storylines, the only things that really hold that all these Before Watchmen books are happening in the same universe is the art and an overwhelming sense of bleakness that comes straight from the original series.

The final common denominator is the Comedian, who is the only one that makes at least a cameo appearance in the other Watchmen’s stories as well as the Minutemen story line. He tries to put Ozymandias in his place, “saves” Silk Spectre from her own bad decisions, refuses to take Nite Owl seriously and even participates in the split worlds faced by Doctor Manhattan when he accidentally changes his own timeline. This psychopathic father figure that sets up the events in the original series is a natural way to tie all the stories together. Despite being primarily missing from Watchmen, he’s a big element in how the world moves forward and that’s probably the smartest element that DC carried over to these prequel series.

His prequel story is pretty basic – the rise and fall of the Comedian. He starts as a teenage delinquent, thrown out of the Minutemen for being unpredictable and volatile in the field. By the end, he’s the old, tired, defeated Comedian seen briefly at the beginning of Watchmen. In between his notorious exploits in the Vietnam War humanize him in ways missing previously while still showing that he is indeed a giant psychopath with a deep-seeded desire to painfully destroy people who get in his way. Nothing new is truly learned about the Comedian, just gray areas filled in with his exploits. In the end he’s still the same man seen in flashbacks in the original series, though the choices of famous real life peers featured in his story to make him seem more human is both surprising and a little odd.

It only makes sense to put the world’s largest psychopath with the largest sociopath, so the second half of this volume is devoted to Rorschach, the masked vigilante with a strange trigger set off by sex and prostitutes. It was always odd to find that, despite his random outbursts of horrific violence when threatened or when seeing innocents threatened, Rorschach was always the most moral of all the Watchmen (and Minutemen for that matter) and that surprising revelation is filled out a little more in his prequel story.

Unlike in Watchmen, there are a few glimpses of Rorschach having a life outside his crime fighting nights. He even asks out a woman though, because he is Rorschach, it’s more inadvertent than intentional. He’s trying to do the right thing, thanking a woman who potentially saved his life and is really confused at the prospect of a date. It’s kind of adorable if he weren’t a murderous sociopath. Nothing goes right, of course, because nothing ever does for Rorschach and that’s probably what makes this one of the saddest stories of all.

None of these prequel series are necessary and I would be hard-pressed to admit that they add much to the universe build by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. And yet, as someone who always wants the whole story, it was really intriguing to see these characters separated and put under a magnify glass to see their flaws and heroic elements on their own merits and not necessarily through the eyes of their crime-fighting peers. The original Watchmen built a world of gray with morally gray characters doing things that could rarely be deemed as completely right or wrong. These prequels have colored in some of that gray, adding details and shadings that weren’t necessarily, but are fun to have all the same. Though in the end, it’s all horribly depressing, though that can only be expected.

 

I received an e-ARC of this graphic novel from the publisher in return for an honest review.