måndag 14 juli 2014

Azzarello, Jones & Bermejo: Before Watchmen – Comedian, Rorschach

Count me among those who felt it was a bit silly of Alan Moore to have a hissy fit about other people doing Watchmen prequels when he's made a whole career out of taking characters created by others and remaking them.

However, even though I still feel that way, I also feel that Brian Azzarello botched his takes on Comedian and Rorschach; these stories do not add positive value to the Watchmen saga.

The problem with the Rorschach story is that Moore's ruthless, efficient, crazy-but-cunning character here has been transformed into, basically, a sadistic but well-meaning klutz. He starts out torturing a drug dealer/user to learn where a drug gang's HQ is, goes there and is promptly defeated by the gang and beaten to death. No, wait – the drug lord has cooked up a grand scheme to catch and kill Rorschach, but doesn't bother with actually killing him. Instead, he's beaten to within an inch of his life and left for dead in the sewers. Right there, the gritty "realism" (actually "detailed, sadistic depictions of violence") of the story loses its believability.

Meanwhile, a serial killer called "The Bard" is mutilating and murdering women in the city. Also, a kind waitress befriends Rorschach's secret identity, the down-and-out loser Walter Kovacs, and tries to help him. (You just know, reading it, that it's not going to end well.)

Anyway, Rorschach searches out one of the gang members who nearly killed him, and tortures him (in graphic detail) for information – anybody recognize a pattern here? – and then barley escapes with is life as the rest of the gang turns up. Opting for an ironic twist to end the story, Azzarello then has bad things happen to the waitress in connection with the aforementioned serial killer, and has Rorschach murder "The Bard", who gets off on some unexplained technicality, three years later. The end.

This story reminded me of Tamburini and Liberatore's RanXerox – violent to the point of being sadistic, with excellent art and a not particularly good writing. Azzarello gets lost in his own violence-feast, and even Bermejo's brilliant art can't save him. Tamp down the sadism, and you'd have a story that would work with the ironic ending, but not with Rorschach. Moore's Rorschach simply doesn't work in this story – in fact, it's hard to understand how a Rorschach this bumbling would have survived long enough to even be a part of Watchmen.

The Comedian story in this volume is somewhat better, in that it doesn't do too much damage to the character. However, it delves way too deeply into conspiracy theory territory for my tastes – having a cold-hearted Jackie Kennedy conspire with Eddie Blake (the Comedian) to murder Marilyn Monroe, FBI higher-ups conspire to keep Eddie from Dallas to save President Kennedy from being murdered, the army conspires to smuggle drugs to fund the nascent Vietnam War, and the CIA conspiring to assassinate Robert Kennedy. It gets somewhat tiresome.

Anyway, Eddie Blake comes off as a somewhat more fully-developed character here than in Watchmen (as well he should, of course, having a whole mini-series to himself). He's a close friend to the Kennedy family, and he takes President Kennedy's murder very hard. Lyndon B Johnson's administration then sends him off to the budding Vietnam war where he's supposed to be merely a PR figure, but instead he infuses a fighting spirit into the lackluster American soldiers he encounters. (Of course, the notion propagated in this comic that all you need to win battles is to be sufficiently bad-ass is something I sorely doubt; but perhaps things like fire, movement and cover aren't as visually exciting as standing upright in full view of the enemy dressed in a gaudy costume and going full rock'n'roll with your machine gun.)

The war and the politicking back in the US takes its toll on Blake, and he gets more and more unhinged and cruel, until nobody wants to have anything to with him anymore – including his old friend Bobby Kennedy who decides that enough is enough, and America needs a leader who'll say no to war crimes and massacres, and Eddie Blake needs to be held accountable for his crimes. Of course, Eddie Blake can't allow that… Exactly how he goes about to try and stop it, I won't reveal, as I try to stay away from spoilers as much as possible.

This is a better-written story than the Rorschach one, but like I said, I'm tired of Kennedy conspiracies. I also think that the Vietnam war has been somewhat overused as an excuse for craziness. If you feel your story needs somewhere where there's no rules and you can do anything, no matter how crazy, the Vietnam war is always there, waiting for you. But even if your story is a well-crafted one, I'm likely to have read or seen it before, just because it's so easy to put people into that environment and go "anything goes, and look how this drives ordinary men crazy".

So even though this is a better story than the Rorschach one, it still doesn't get me very emotionally involved, because I've already seen so much of it before. Had Azzarello concentrated more on Blake's  relationship with the Kennedys, or on actual politics instead of conspiracy theories, or the actual Vietnam war instead of the readily-available stereotypes, I might have been more interested. OTOH, if you haven't already seen or read too many Vietnam movies, documentaries, stories or books, you might get more out of this story than I did.

Not recommended, even though J. G. Jones does a credible job on the art. Alan Moore made his career – heck, his superstardom – taking characters others created and doing something special with them, so it's perfectly reasonable that "his" characters should also be available to others. But do something special with them then, for crying out loud!

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