Before Watchmen is a series of titles that was beset with controversy from its inception. Years before the launch of the series last year, DC Comics had looked at a prequel concept for the much-ballyhooed Watchmen mini-series turned graphic novel, but squelched it before anything came of it. Watchmen, continually one of the biggest selling graphic novels, has a sort of sacred status to many. And loyalists believed that if Alan Moore didn’t write it or at least endorse it, then it wasn’t for them. Still, whether you hate or love the original Watchmen, how do you pass up a series of titles from the likes of J. Michael Straczynski, Brian Azzarello, Len Wein, Darwyn Cooke, Adam Hughes, Joe Kubert, Lee Bermejo, and Jae Lee? See our early review of the first issues of the series here and here.
In an era where you can either read single issues or wait out the run—especially with a mini-series—and get the graphic novel in hardcover or trade version, as consumer you have decisions to make. You could read the monthly and then you don’t necessary “need” the trade edition. If you love the monthly you may just want the trade version on your shelf for future reading. With ordinary monthly series waiting for the trade editions actually can hurt the ability to ensure series and creators you love continue, since publishers bank on weekly circulation numbers. If everyone waits for the trades, the publishers may cancel a series based on low sales. That doesn’t necessarily seem to be the case for mini-series, which publishers only plan for a few issues.
As I think happened with Before Watchmen, you might start reading and drift off from buying later issues, especially if you tried to read all the series. Most of the mini-series under the Before Watchmen logo have a slower pace than your average series. So if you skipped the monthlies (as we did), or drifted away after a few issues, then now is your chance to read the stories cover to cover in one sitting with DC Comics’ release of deluxe edition hardcover editions of Before Watchmen—the prequel stories highlighting the star characters of Watchmen. If you loved Watchmen, you may want all the deluxe editions. Each of the four bound volumes includes some extras in the back, like in-process artwork. And the design looks great—these are high-quality compilations meant to stand next to the deluxe edition of Watchmen on your shelf.
Before Watchmen was an ambitious endeavor and as with many such endeavors, not all the parts end up as exceptional. If you are using the release of the compilations as your chance to read the full stories and don’t plan to collect them all, which volume(s) should you check out?
The most faithful to the original Watchmen can probably be found in Straczynski and Hughes’ Before Watchmen: Dr. Manhattan. On the one hand, we don’t learn a lot new about Dr. Manhattan and Silk Spectre. But what we do see looks great and Straczynski really knows the character of Dr. Manhattan. When you wield as much power as this bright, blue guy composed of pure energy, and you know the past, present, and future, what are the stakes of any relationship you have, and what do you care about? I imagine it’s a tough character to script. Yet Straczynski is successful here. Likewise, Hughes’ renderings are in his typical gorgeous style, yet he is pretty reserved, almost holding back to meet the more subtle requirements of the measured pace of the story.
Before Watchmen: Dr. Manhattan is smartly bundled with Straczynski’s Before Watchmen: Nite Owl mini-series. Nite Owl’s story is strangely more grim than Dr. Manhattan’s and doesn’t seem to fulfill the potential of what could be the best character of the Watchmen universe. Kubert’s artwork is, however, very faithful to Dave Gibbons’ original artwork in Watchmen. So the reason to pick up the Before Watchmen: Nite Owl/Dr. Manhattan hardcover rests with Straczynski and Hughes’ well-done Dr. Manhattan.
Another compilation available is Before Watchmen: Comedian/Rorschach, with both mini-series written by Brian Azzarello. This volume reprints Before Watchmen: Comedian Issues 1-6 and Before Watchmen: Rorschach Issues 1-4. I think everyone sort of sees Rorschach as the Boba Fett of Watchmen. Rorschach is rough and tough and cool, hiding behind the ever-changing mask, yet he is probably a bit too gritty for mainstream readers. He’s a bleak guy with a bleak history. This fits well with Lee Bermejo’s incredible style, but it’s a tough read and ultimately there is not a lot to care about here. Most readers want to like their vigilante protagonist and there is so much not to like about Rorschach.
So it is surprising how successful Azzarello’s story for The Comedian comes across. The Comedian is a bad guy. Yet the story of The Comedian as told by Azzarello follows the story of America from JFK’s assassination to RFK’s assassination in very cool way that allows us to get into the thinking of this anti-hero. J.G. Jones’s Vietnam era artwork in The Comedian is right up there with Michael Golden’s classic The ‘Nam series. And his Kennedy family portraiture and related real-life characters really pop off the page. So as with the Before Watchmen: Nite Owl/Dr. Manhattan hardcover, the Before Watchmen: Comedian/Rorschach hardcover has one mini-series that might prompt you to buy the volume.
Both of these titles are available for pre-order discount from Amazon.com on July 16, 2013, or you can get them from your local comic book store.
Already available are the other two volumes: Before Watchmen: Minutemen/Silk Spectre hardcover and Before Watchmen: Ozymandias/Crimson Corsair. It seems like DC Comics’ saved the standout two volumes for last. The most interesting of the four stories launched last month follows the Before Watchmen: Minutemen mini-series, but it doesn’t match Dr. Manhattan or The Comedian to carry a volume. Before Watchmen: Silk Spectre could have been a stand-out mini-series, but the Cooke story focuses on a tired mother-daughter battle instead of highlighting what could be an incredible superheroine storyline, and the cartoony artwork by Conner doesn’t jibe with the gravity of the rest of the Before Watchmen series. Before Watchmen: Minutemen/Silk Spectre reprints Before Watchmen: Minutemen Issues 1-6 and Before Watchmen: Silk Spectre Issues 1-4.
The other deluxe hardcover release is Before Watchmen: Ozymandias/Crimson Corsair, which reprints Before Watchmen: Ozymandias Issues 1-6 and the “Curse of the Crimson Corsair” backup story. Writer Len Wein and artist Jae Lee had probably the most daunting task of making the story of Adrian Veidt interesting. Possibly the least of the original Watchmen characterizations, it’s difficult to have any empathy for the character and as with any protagonist you’ve got to be able to relate at some level with the focus of the story. Unfortunately, if you’re not collecting the entire Before Watchmen deluxe editions, John Higgins’ excellent artwork on the Crimson Corsair is probably not enough to go after this volume alone.
Before Watchmen: Minutemen/Silk Spectre hardcover and Before Watchmen: Ozymandias/Crimson Corsair are available now from Amazon.com or your favorite comic book store. A matching deluxe edition of Watchmen is also available.