Several months ago, DC Comics invited us to travel up Broadway and get our very first look at "Before Watchmen." Placed in my hands was the "Green Book," the binder that collected -- in various stages of production -- the latest covers and interior pages as they came in. While not as comprehensive as reading the actual issues, viewing the collection of art and words provided me with a certain baseline as to the quality and content of the "Before Watchmen" collection of miniseries. Now that the official press embargo has lifted on "first impression" pieces, I am free to give you mine.
DC has had a policy of holding back on releasing to the public any "Before Watchmen" interior pages prior to publication -- but I think if they had provided such previews, they would have put the lie to the idea floated around portions of the comics media that the project is nothing more than a cheap cash grab. You can't have something with the high level of artistic achievement as evidenced in those pages and call it "cheap." The work that I saw in that Green Book was, quite frankly, some of the best the individual artists have done in their entire careers.
And if you were assigned to a controversial project like "Before Watchmen," wouldn't you put your best foot forward? Think about it: fans and critics alike are going to go over every single sentence, every single panel. This isn't like the Random Miniseries Based On the Event of the Month -- this is a continuation of one of the best-selling graphic novels of all time. So to suggest that DC was going to throw together slap-dash packets of script and art, collect their money, and collectively move to Guam to avoid the torches and pitchforks just doesn't make a lot of sense. Though I heard Guam is just lovely this time of the year.
It also doesn't make a lot of sense to broadcast snap judgements on the quality of "Before Watchmen" before at least seeing some of the comics themselves.
I had the pleasure of viewing a lot of the art at the pencil stage, which, in the case of a talent such as J.G. Jones, was nothing short of amazing. Jones, strongly channeling Dave Gibbons on "Before Watchmen: Comedian," has never looked this sharp, ever. There was quite a lot of that issue to peruse -- and while I cannot discuss the exact subject matter surrounding the story, I can assure you that it will probably be quite the controversy. If "Comedian" keeps going down the narrative road I think it will travel, I suspect we will all have a lot to talk about regarding it in the months ahead.
Lee Bermejo's "Rorschach" was publication-ready in simply the pencils, continuing the high bar set by him in books like "Joker" and "Batman: Noel." Cooke's "Minutemen" was classic Cooke -- the meta-textual resonances with his "New Frontier" miniseries giving the story a subtly added dimension. Amanda Conner's "Silk Spectre" was a beautifully-rendered -- but unflinching -- look deeper into the character and the familial relationships in her life. "Nite Owl" was classic Joe Kubert come to life -- like reading a comic from another era, but without all the self-referential "irony" and Ben-Day dots. What I saw of Jae Lee's "Ozymandias" was so trippy it looked like it was smoked out of somebody's magic pipe, the images a fever-dream that literally bent and swayed across the page.
And you have the first sequential art drawn by Adam Hughes in quite some time in "Dr. Manhattan," which is no small feat; I would imagine it involved a rather talented Hughes-wrangler.
That said, I haven't read any of the full issues, and can't give you too much of a take on the writing. Certainly, it is possible something could go south in that department, though very talented writers in the order of Brian Azzarello are on board. I mean, the art for the most part flows really well in a narrative way, which is a good sign. If I was buying these books at the store I'd probably pick up "Comedian," "Ozymandias," and maybe "Minutemen," just based on my personal taste. It would take a lot to get me to buy an entire line of any inter-connected miniseries, though I was assured that one didn't need to purchase everything in order to enjoy the individual issues.
The elephant in the room whenever discussing "Before Watchmen" is of course the debate as to whether it should ever been produced at all. "Watchmen's" original author, Alan Moore, has made it clear he does not support the project, and people in certain segments of the comics blogosphere will pretty much call you an evil soulless shill if you dare say anything positive about it. If you support "Before Watchmen," the idea goes, you pretty much hate Comics.
But I love Comics. I love comics because their heroes inspire people and help give them perspective on the world around them. I mean, look what happened with "V for Vendetta" and the Anonymous/OWS movement. The characters in "Watchmen" have the same potential to make people think...to make people riot! To make people question their government, question authority, question views on morality and ethics. And if it is at all possible to competently continue telling stories using these characters to achieve these goals, I am all for it.
Because if you see the Watchmen characters as currently being merely victims/tools of a faceless corporate entity, you really haven't been paying attention. These characters are dangerous. These characters know exactly what they're doing. These characters are bigger than any Summer comic book event, any sweaty-mad discussion on a comic book news message board, any slick press junket. Their desire to get out into the masses and infect them with what they represent -- stir them to think -- is probably bigger than their creator. I'm a subscriber to the belief that these characters represent powerful archetypes that have, to an extent, a life of their own.
And with everything that is currently happening in the world, I believe they are needed. You can't shoe-horn Superman or The Flash or some other classic DC character into the types of topical stories only the characters in Watchmen can pull off. I believe even though they are prequels, the "Before Watchmen" miniseries have a deep relevance to the present, capturing the Zeitgeist of the current era by looking backward.