Review by C.J. Bunce
Whether or not you’d call yourself a fan of Watchmen, the graphic novel or film adaptation, or whether you’re interested in the new DC Comics’ prequel series, if you’ve seen anything about Edward Blake, the Comedian, you can tell he is a pretty complex character. World War II hero, vigilante-turned-paramilitary agent, and sociopath. In the parallel universe of Watchmen, we’re led to believe Blake was the sole gunman on the grassy knoll. His character made to look like Burt Reynolds and his name a play on Blake Edwards, director of the Pink Panther comedies, the Comedian wore the famous smiley face as a badge, a symbol that has become synonymous with the Watchmen. It was also the Comedian whose death sets off the mystery plot behind Alan Moore’s graphic novel, the question: Who is killing all these superheroes? Blake never appears in real-time in Watchmen, only in flashbacks, and ultimately we never get to know much about his motivations or the causes of his apparent psychotic state. He’s billed as a hero, yet as he saves victims from the villain, he traumatizes the victims. He alone saves the hostages in Iran, yet the hostages do not appear as joyous with the result as in our timeline. He sometimes seems to know what is right and search out and be a superhero, yet something always gets in the way, he alters his own course heading, and everyone ultimately would be better off without him.
So writer Brian Azzarello and artist J.G. Jones have their shot here at expanding on the Comedian via his backstory in Before Watchmen–Comedian #1. In Issue #1 we don’t yet have a clear picture of this character–maybe it’s too soon–but at least there is something minimally sympathetic about the guy who one day goes completely off the edge of the rational. It is not he who is the schemer. The evil mastermind in this issue is actually quite brilliant–it’s none other than the one and only Jackie Kennedy, angry at a husband wasting time with the other woman. I’m curious whether older readers have the same reactions to this storyline as younger readers. At one time the Kennedys were the American royal family, and JFK’s death the single worst event in the history of the nation. To make the First Lady the person who instigates the murder of Marilyn Monroe? Definitely some shocking stuff fleshed out here.
Blake begins his story, then, as a rube, maybe like Joaquin Phoenix in To Die For. He maintains his respect for the Kennedy brothers, yet who really is pulling the strings? The story begins with a not so friendly game of pickup football. Jones’s art is not photo-real but he does enough to let you know Blake is a key element in the ultimate 1960s inner sanctum. He is a superhero CIA assassin of sorts. His missions? To take out those who would make those in power look bad. In Watchmen, this meant killing Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein before they dug their heels in to report on the ramifications of the Watergate break-in. With all the oddities that have been said over the years about Watergate bit player G. Gordon Liddy, Edward Blake appears to be cut from the same cloth. As Blake is about to erase another target, he learns of the events in Dallas of November 1963. Which poses the question–Does Azzarello plan to alter or explain Alan Moore’s background on the Comedian? As the Comedian sits on the bed of Marilyn Monroe after apparently drugging her to look like an overdose, he takes note of his surroundings. Can this character ever be redeemable? Is he any worse or better than someone like Hannibal Lecter? Can someone like Nite Owl step in and at least try to fix him? Does anyone ever try, or is he just another typical, hopeless villain? More than any other single issue DC Comics has published this past year, Comedian #1 certainly has intrigue, and will leave readers coming back for more.
Unfortunately the actual hero of the Watchmen story doesn’t get as exciting a debut in Before Watchmen–Nite Owl #1. Legendary writer J. Michael Straczynski and popular artists Andy and Joe Kubert don’t do much to particularly evoke the early 1960s, where Nite Owl’s origin begins as a kid named Daniel Dreiberg. Danny’s beginning is that of a slightly more bleak backgrounded Peter Parker. He has an abusive father, and upon his death he is taken under the wing of the former Nite Owl, Hollis Mason, now ready to retire. The training and mentoring is skipped over in this Issue #1, and Nite Owl becomes a member of the Crimebusters with the Comedian, Rorschach, Dr. Manhattan, Ozymandias, and Silk Spectre. The single thing I think readers want to know about his past is just not there. Hopefully the creators will come back to this in later issues of this mini-series.
How does a kid who would break into the original Nite Owl’s headquarters to learn his secrets become the conscientious superhero he later becomes–and remains–after the Keene Act’s ban on superheroes? Character building and development is left aside here where readers could use an explanatory, novel, origin story. Nite Owl doesn’t bring a lot of uniqueness as superheroes are concerned. As influenced by Ted Kord’s Blue Beetle or Batman… either he remains sort of bland as created by Moore, or Straczynski and team Kubert could really expand his story into new dimensions. With a powerhouse creative team like these guys, I’m just left wishing for something more.
One place that could have been an opening for some creative freedom is the buddy relationship of Nite Owl and Rorschach. We get to see a glimpse of that toward the end of this first issue, but perhaps an entire issue showing us why Nite Owl and Rorschach make the best team-up is worth pursuing.
The first four issues of Before Watchmen have certainly been interesting, with first issues of Azzarello’s Rorschach, Straczynski’s Dr. Manhattan, and Len Wein’s Ozymandias remaining to be published over the next few weeks. With artists Adam Hughes, Lee Bermejo, and Jae Lee drawing those series, we’ve got a lot more to look forward to.