The following is a review of "Before Watchmen: Comedian" #1 -- here be spoilers!
Out of all the "Before Watchmen" prequels from DC Comics, the one I looked forward to the most was "Comedian" by Brian Azzarello. Having seen some of the early pencilled pages, rendered so beautifully by J.G. Jones, my interest was immediately piqued. I was told this issue was going to be about the John F. Kennedy assassination -- a topic I had read a lot about -- and I couldn't wait to see how the event was treated within the skewed and provocative lens of the "Watchmen" universe. In addition, Darwyn Cooke set up some intriguing bits about a young Edward Morgan Blake in his excellent "Before Watchmen: Minutemen" #1, and I was interested in seeing where Azzarello would run with it.
Sure, Blake is a murderer, brutaliser of women, and an attempted rapist -- but sometimes it's interesting and informative to see how the minds of such creatures work. I mean, it's not like The Comedian is ever going to be positioned as an actual "franchise" antihero character spouting out naughty catchphrases, like Wolverine, Venom, Lobo, etc. -- because, you know, The Comedian is an attempted rapist, murderer of pregnant women, etc.
So what I expected was an unflinching, blood-soaked biography of a larger-than-life psychopath, telling me how Blake got to be what he was and what he did when he got there.
Instead, Jacqueline Kennedy was the larger-than-life psychopath and villain of the first issue (ordering the death of Kennedy "mistress" Marilyn Monroe), and I'm not quite sure how that happened.
The heavy-lidded Blake sleepwalks through his own book: contemplating a baseball, being ordered around by the Kennedys, watching the TV impotently as the news of JFK's assassination hits the airwaves. If you miss something of the psycho-excess you might have expected from Comedian, there is a scene where he somberly kisses a dead Marilyn Monroe's naked behind..though it is all rather soft and poetic-looking (one gets the feeling that Jones was mismatched to Azzarello's writing style; rendering what was supposed to be noir and gritty into a dreamlike lilting float that would be far better suited to Grant Morrison).
While DC indicated in an interview with Entertainment Weekly that this mini-series is "political" in focus, and that it would show "the creation of this cynical, almost psychopathic man," isn't Blake's primal sin in the original "Watchmen," his defining moment as a psychopath, this scene right here?:
Comedian the victimiser of women in "Watchmen"...
The fact that Blake's hatred, resentment, and violence against women is not the focus of this miniseries -- all of which seems to have been projected onto Jackie Kennedy (in one of the biggest WTFs of the year) -- indicates to me that the Comedian is indeed being molded into a "franchise" antihero in "Before Watchmen," its Wolverine-type character. And why not? He's a big cosplay hit at comic conventions (the amount of couples who like to dress up as Blake and Sally Jupiter, in a irony-less recreation of a de facto abusive relationship, are legion). He has an awesome design. And he has that smiley-face button: that's pretty cool and edgy. The "rape" stuff just confuses the issue, I guess. Makes him less marketable.
But to throw in any so-called "feminist" arguments regarding this book is to obscure the fact that, in the end, its biggest flaw is that it's just sort of boring. Heck, I liked original "Watchmen" scribe Alan Moore's "Neonomicon," which essentially depicted a woman being assaulted by the Creature of The Black Lagoon. It's all in how you tell the tale. I have tremendous respect for Azzarello as a writer, but this is a lukewarm effort at best, with sluggish pacing and a meandering plot that seems to almost studiously avoid any chance for thrills or climax. Really, you could have swapped in The Punisher or your gritty hero du jour in "Comedian" #1's generic-looking action scenes and nobody would have been the wiser.
...and Comedian the victim of women in "Before Watchmen"
And while I'm aware of the rather checkered past of the Kennedy clan, in the end I could not help but feel that the portrayal of them in this comic (and I was a fan of their use in Vertigo's "Shade The Changing Man" back in the day) was in very bad taste. God help me, I could have even dealt with the bad taste if it was leading to some sort of whip-smart satire or commentary -- but here it just screams "Hey look kiddies, you know your heroes? They're foul-mouthed murdering scum!" To be truly edgy, though, you've got to have a bit more than just that. And to make the point that what turned Comedian into a psychopath was the death of JFK -- something that clearly contradicts the original "Watchmen" series in a couple of different ways -- the Kennedys need to be presented as somewhat sympathetic. Which is not done here, making the final scene shockingly flat and anticlimactic.
I've been supportive of the "Before Watchmen" project: feeling that the same way Alan Moore has written other people's characters, others should be able to write his characters. But the caveat is, if you deign to step in such formidable shoes, you really ought to do an amazing job. "Before Watchmen: Comedian" #1 does nothing to really add to the mythos of the character; all it does is take away from it, presenting a bizarrely revised version where Blake is passive, empty, and, inexplicably, a victim of women (watching Blake primly look away from Jackie's seductive advances, I had to really wonder if anybody involved really read the original "Watchmen" at all). Perhaps there's more coming up in further issues that I don't know about that fleshes him out a bit more -- addressing the Sally Jupiter issue, his abusive childhood (as brought up in Cooke's "Minutemen"), and so on. But I sort of want to throw this copy of the first issue out a window.
Read a preview of Before Watchmen: Comedian #1 by clicking the image below.