Before Watchmen: Rorschach #2 | Exclusive preview
This summer, DC Comics launched its controversial but top-selling project: a collection of prequels to Watchmen, the legendary graphic novel (often called "the Citizen Kane of comic books") written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Dave Gibbons. Neither of the original creators are involved in the seven interlocking Before Watchmen miniseries, although for the most part DC tapped top talent to produce the titles, including Darwyn Cooke, Amanda Conner, Jae Lee, Lee Bermejo and Chicago's own Brian Azzarello. The scribe behind the Vertigo crime-noir series 100 Bullets, Azzarello was probably a natural choice to write both Before Watchmen: The Comedian and Before Watchmen: Rorschach.
Starting in June, we reviewed the first five of the series, which we found a mixed bag. Hands down, the one—and only—series everyone loved is Silk Spectre; artist Conner is knocking it out of the park with her strong layouts (and an occasional touch of whimsy). Another home-run in the art department (although we were mixed on the story) can be found in the stunning pages of Ozymandias. We had a lot less enthusiasm for Comedian and Minutemen, and complete agreement about the sorry-ass nadir of the lot, Nite Owl. That bunch of five minis were all released within a few weeks of each other at the beginning of summer. More recently, DC rolled out the final two minis, starring the two breakaway characters everyone remembers most from the original story: Dr. Manhattan, the naked blue godlike figure, and Rorschach, the misanthrope vigilante. We've got an exclusive preview of the first four pages of the second issue of Rorschach, along with our assessment of the first issue of Rorschach and Dr. Manhattan.
Web Behrens: Well, I have to say: I'm relieved. The debuts of the final two miniseries of the Before Watchmen project came out, and they didn't suck. Given the sorry state of some of the earlier efforts, I didn't have high hopes.
The biggest surprise for me is this: I'll keep reading Dr. Manhattan. Given the Nite Owl debacle, I know we were all cringing that a second character in the Watchmen universe (and for my money, the most fascinating) had been handed to the same writer, J. Michael Straczynski. But he actually captures the good doctor's distinctive quantum voice, albeit with less poetry than Alan Moore did. And he sets up an interesting conundrum for Jon, plot-wise: Can Dr. Manhattan travel back in time? What would happen if he did?
Straczynski is aided immensely, of course, by Adam Hughes's gorgeous rendering of that distinctive naked blue form. The artist adopts layout schematics that recall Dave Gibbons's, which makes this, along with Silk Spectre, the most visually similar to Watchmen. That's never a bad thing.
As for Rorschach, well, despite the fact that 20 years ago, he somehow became the breakout character of the story, I don't think he works as well as a solo star. He needs an ensemble to play off of. Still, Azzarello understands what makes the crazy-sad vigilante tick, and he's miles ahead of Straczynski in writing Rorschach's dialogue. And Bermejo (who collaborated with Azz on a stunning, unsettling Joker graphic novel) turns in his confidently naturalistic, violent art. Still, I wonder: How compelling is a story about the ink-blot-masked adventurer tracking down a serial killer and also extracting vengeance against a gang boss? So far, it feels to me like just another gory crime story. I should have more faith in Azzarello, who proved his chops with 100 Bullets and, more recently, the killer Batman: Knight of Vengeance mini series. But so far, I'm bored.
Brent DiCrescenzo: "With great power comes great responsibility." Yeah, yeah. We've heard that a million times. But with omnipotent power comes great … ennui? That's the driving thought behind Dr. Manhattan. The naked blue guy's aloofness makes him inherently more fascinating than the hurm-ing Batman analogs of the Watchmen universe. He can dismantle matter with a thought. He can travel through time or jump to Mars. And yet he's bored, or bummed, largely because he's lost his humanity. I find Dr. Manhattan's motives far more believable and "realistic" than the altruistic motivations of other supremely powerful superheroes. Superman is invincible, yet he saves kittens from trees? Don't buy it. I'd be flying to every planet in the universe. I'd want to watch stars die and relive my 1982 Christmas.
These notions are basically what's in play in this gorgeously drawn installment of the Watchmen reboot. (Adam Hughes is best known for penciling knock-out women, but his male form is equally beautiful.) The time-leaping plot requires deep knowledge of the original series, more so than the other new books, but the cliffhanger here had me hungrier for issue two more so than any of the others. And not because it looks amazing or reads amazingly. No, I honestly don't know where this is going. Phew.
Jonathan Messigner: I had the precise opposite reaction to these two comics. I found the Dr. Manhattan prequel to be—surprise!—ponderous and hopelessly weighed down by Straczynski's pontification, which reads like a Philosophy 101 student trying to take on Plato. What worked so well for Dr. Manhattan in the original was that he was a counterpoint to the rest of the characters: While most of the Watchmen (excepting Ozy) were about as earthy, filthy or flawed as possible, Dr. Manhattan was literally elemental. The contrast of Dr. Manhattan's otherworldliness and the sort of extreme humanity of the other characters is what made him work so well. Here, it feels like he's been photocopied so many time as to be a poor facsimile. Not to give Straczynski more "mind-blowing" stuff to work with, but he's basically just darning Locke's socks.
The lineage for Rorschach, on the other hand, seems completely seamless in Azzarello's handling. The voice is there, the backstory, and while it's hard to believe that a crime boss would set up an elaborate trap for a small-time "hero," ensnare him in that trap and then allow him to walk away, I'm willing to suspend my disbelief, because the story was strong enough. Watchmen needs Rorschach's unrepentant noir style for both plot purposes and, again, contrast. Also, it had this weird quality to it that's been lacking from most of these titles: readability.
Before Watchmen: Rorschach #2 goes on sale at local comics shops (and digitally on Comixology) Wednesday, October 3.