Review: Before Watchmen: Nite Owl & Dr. Manhattan by J. Michael Straczynski, Adam Hughes & Joe Kubert

Man, I forgot how depressing Watchmen was. The original series is a comics classic, often considered a touch point in the history of comics that heavily influenced the ton of everything that has come after in. Gone were the shiny bright colors and the BOOM BLAM SPLAT of the early generation’s comic and in was the dark, cynical worlds heavily influenced by Alan Moore. I was one of those people who thought doing prequel series was a stupid idea, one that would get handily rejected by comic buyers everywhere. And yet they didn’t. Eight different prequel series were completed and fairly well-received by critics. So here now it’s my turn to experience these prequels. For the next few Mondays, I’ll be reviewing the up-coming trades of the Watchmen prequels as a sort of Comic Con warm up.

Click here for my review of Minutemen / Silk Spectre here.

Click here for my review of Ozymandias / Crimson Corsair here.

 

Before Watchmen: Nite Owl & Dr. Manhattan
Written by J. Michael Straczynski
Illustrated by Adam Hughes & Joe Kubert

DC Comics
I received an e-ARC of this from DC Comics 
Releases July 16, 2013
288 pages
Comics / Superheroes

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Discover what happened before WATCHMEN as writer J. Michael Straczynski is joined by Andy Kubert and the legendary Joe Kubert to take flight with the gadget-savvy vigilante known as Nite Owl! And then in BEFORE WATCHMEN: DR. MANHATTAN, JMS teams with fan-favorite artist Adam Hughes on the all-powerful super-man Dr. Manhattan. For Dr. Manhattan, past, present, and future are one and the same. But as he observes the events of his life, do they remain the same? Or are they changed? The very fact of his existence may have altered the nature of what will or will not be... 

Collects: BEFORE WATCHMEN: NITE OWL #1-4, BEFORE WATCHMEN: DR. MANHATTAN #1-4 and BEFORE WATCHMEN: MOLOCH #1-2

Of all the Before Watchmen collection, the graphic novel that combined glimpses of Nite Owl (the Dan Drieberg edition) and Dr. Manhattan before the formation of the Watchmen group was the most surprising. I figured Dan Drieberg would be one of the more boring stories because Nite Owl is a pretty bland character in the original series, always seeming as though he’s reacting to things and being a bit of a sad sack. Dr. Manhattan on the other hand is all jibberish riddles and physics. Neither of those things sounded all that interesting.

But “seeing” Nite Owl come into his own by investigating a string of prostitute murders was the most enjoyable part of the Before Watchmen series for me. Add in that his partner in crime is Rorschach, who spends almost as much time out of mask as in, and that Dan begins a relationship with a dominatrix and it’s all seemingly out of character for the very safe and boring Nite Owl. Yet it works, combining the emotional baggage that follows Rorschach like a parade of madness with Dan’s intelligence and overwhelming need to do what’s right while also separating himself from his predecessor. It ends in a cliché, but the journey with Dan embodying a superhero in a way that he never really does as the older Nite Owl was a joy to watch.

Though it’s a little weird for me to claim it’s “a joy to watch” considering the gruesome nature of the story and the amount of blood pooling in the corner of the panels by Andy and Joe Kubert. Their art is an homage to Dave Gibbons, but much livelier than most of the other series with perhaps the exception of Silk Spectre. The art assists the story telling rather than carry it along, which made the series read very quickly.

Then there’s Dr. Manhattan. His series is a bit of a mindfuck, especially if you read it at 11pm on a work night when you really should be in bed and are already half asleep. As the atomically charged Dr. Manhattan, every moment of his life after the scientific accident that turned him into this indestructible being seems to be occurring at once. In the most simplistic way, it’s as though he can jump to any moment he wants as long as it occurred after his accident. To test the lengths of his ability, he tries to jump beyond that to a few moments before he went into the atomic chamber to get his jacket.

Of course when he jumps to a point before he had the ability to see all points of time at once, everything gets messed up. Doctor Jon Osterman doesn’t get stuck in the chamber, doesn’t become the all-powerful Dr. Manhattan and goes on to live a boring natural life. Because Dr. Manhattan went back in time, he essentially created a parallel timeline where his life was much different and as the series goes along, every new decision that this human Dr. Osterman makes, a new timeline branches off with what happens had he made the opposite decision. Meanwhile Dr. Manhattan narrates how all this is possible with physics and gets a little anxious that he’s essentially destroyed his original timeline.

It’s a great “what-if” story, the life that could have been had this one epic life-changing event hadn’t happened. Ultimately Dr. Manhattan has to figure out how to piece together these many disparate timelines to recreate the one where he dies and returns as the ultimate weapon. I was surprised at the amount of emotion hidden in between the panels of these four issues. Considering Manhattan is emotionless and there aren’t really any other main characters to imbue the story with emotion, that was surprising to me and beautifully illustrated by Adam Hughes.

Then this graphic novel finishes out with a two issue look at Moloch, providing a look into the creation of the criminal that causes such chaos both on purpose and inadvertently. Between the art of the haggard post-jail Moloch and the story telling, I was actually made to feel sorry for this criminal who did so much wrong. It’s a story of trying to find redemption when the rest of the world doesn’t care what happens to you. It’s a strong bit of storytelling that was both unexpected and enjoyable.

Now having read all four volumes (my review of the final volume for Rorschach and the Comedian will be up next Monday), I can honestly say that Before Watchmen: Nite Owl & Dr. Manhattan was the most surprising and enjoyable of the series. These three series add more depth to the original Watchmen series and their respective main characters. It adds color to the gray aspects of this world and left me wanting to read more about these two superheroes.

 

An electronic copy of this graphic novel was given to me by the publisher in return for an honest review.