Darwyn Cooke impressed with his Minutemen #1, and he partners with artist Amanda Conner for Before Watchmen: Silk Spectre #1 (DC), the strongest of the single-character Before Watchmen series. The issue begins with a flashback to Watchmen #9, showing Laurie Juspeczyk’s first memory of shattering a snow globe while her parents argue in the next room. It’s a smart idea to build the story around a central image associated with the character, and by building on the themes Moore explored with Silk Spectre, Cooke and Conner create a book that feels like it belongs in the same universe as Watchmen. A large part of that comes from Conner’s use of the nine-panel grid, which creates visual continuity with Dave Gibbons’ work on the original title.
Cooke only agreed to write this title if Conner handled the artwork, and her cartoonish style fits with the theme of nostalgia that has always defined Silk Spectre’s character, whether it’s Laurie or her mother Sally in the costume. There’s a heartbreaking panel at the end of page three, showing a child Laurie crying in her mother’s arms as the shattered remains of the snow globe litter the ground. The light from a lamp illuminates a fruit bowl and creates the circular outline of the missing snow globe, but Laurie and Sally are sitting just outside of it. The fruit bowl comes back into play years later when Laurie is attacked on that same couch by a masked assailant. She uses the bowl to defend herself against the goon, who is actually her mother in disguise, helping Laurie train for her future superhero career. It’s a brutal sequence, and the nine-panel grid ensures that we see each hit in stark detail.
Silk Spectre is the Before Watchmen title that is most faithful to its source material, with plenty of shout-outs for fans: the start of Laurie’s smoking habit, a reference to She-Devils In Silk (the Silk Spectre porn referenced in Watchmen), and an appearance of the Tijuana bible that Sally is so proud of in the original series. The first issue even ends with a quote, a lyric from The Shirelles’ “Don’t Say Goodnight And Mean Goodbye” that ends the issue on a bittersweet note as Laurie and Greg run away from home and head off to San Francisco.
What Silk Spectre #1 does best is capture the complex relationship between Laurie and her mother. The two women are more alike than they’d ever admit, and the story points out those similarities when they won’t: The scene of Laurie in her bedroom—concerned about when she’ll fill out the chest area of her costume—is contrasted with a similar sequence of Sally examining her bruises in the mirror after attacking her daughter. Laurie’s opinions of her mother are captured in asides drawn in an exaggerated Hank Ketcham-influenced style, and the images from Laurie’s imagination don’t have panel borders, creating the effect that they are bleeding into the scene around them. Conner has put an incredible amount of detail into realizing the environments, and her attention to background action makes the settings come to life. While Laurie is getting hit on by Greg, a boy is trying to juggle a soccer ball behind her, hitting himself in the head at the same time Laurie snaps out of a daydream. Conner’s facial expressions are dead on, and the emotion she brings to the characters helps Cooke land all the necessary dramatic beats.
In his afterword for the Graphitti Designs collected edition of Watchmen, Alan Moore writes about how he didn’t want the series to be burdened by the continuity issues that plague most superhero titles. By creating a singular universe with Dave Gibbons, Alan Moore was able to accomplish that goal, but now that DC is revisiting Watchmen, those continuity nitpicks are beginning to show up, especially as fans become increasingly jaded with Before Watchmen. Nowhere is that more apparent than in Before Watchmen: Comedian #1 (DC), which flat out ignores that Watchmen placed Edward “The Comedian” Blake in Dallas when President Kennedy was shot. Moore’s Comedian was firmly in Nixon’s pocket, and writer Brian Azzarello disregards that so that he can tell a story about the fall of Camelot.
Following Moore’s advice and ignoring the continuity concerns, Azzarello’s story isn’t bad, although his version of the Comedian is more quietly sadistic than Moore’s. The issue begins with Edward Blake sitting on the edge of Marilyn Monroe’s bed as “The Wanderer” by Dion plays in the background. He’s just fucked and killed the “drug-addled peroxide whore” for Jackie O, and the upbeat music cue is a strong contrast to the action on-panel. There’s a shock factor here, but the plot development establishes just how deep Blake is in with the Kennedys. The dialogue-free scenes of Edward and Marilyn are the issue’s most effective, particularly the chilling shot of Edward kissing the corpse’s naked behind, which is when Moore’s version of the character comes through the strongest.
The Comedian’s time as a government-sanctioned hero makes him an outlet for stories directly connected to U.S. politics, and Azzarello’s experience rewriting history in 100 Bullets comes in handy here. Azzarello is paired with artist J.G. Jones, whose ability to capture likenesses is well suited for a story grounded in real-world events, and Jones is able to incorporate photo-reference without making the action look stiff and posed. The big shootout at the end of the issue showcases Blake’s brutality, and he seems most present in the moments of intense violence. It’s not the strongest of the Before Watchmen titles, but The Comedian is a character that plays to the strengths of both creators, and the first issue is strong enough to merit a look at future chapters.
J. Michael Straczynski has written good comics in the past, but his writing has taken a steep decline in recent years after ill-conceived stories in The Amazing Spider-Man and Superman. Neither of those titles touches Before Watchmen: Nite Owl #1 (DC), a repugnant book that is an offense to Alan Moore’s work. The overwrought dialogue, the winking references to “TVs that will fit in our pockets,” the gratuitous attempts to make the book “mature”—it all works against the storytelling principles of Watchmen. The “no free lunch” theme of the issue could have been ripped from a seventh-grade creative-writing assignment, and even worse, Straczynski’s plot developments actually diminish Dan Dreiberg’s character.
Of all the Before Watchmen titles, Nite Owl is the one to skip. Straczynski’s idea of fleshing out Dan Dreiberg’s character is giving him an abusive dad who makes his wife beg for him to beat her. The relationship between Dan and (Nite Owl I) Hollis Mason was a major source of heart in Watchmen, but their first meeting is cut short so that the plot can get back to Evil Daddy and his leather belt. Dan comes home from the meeting to find all his Nite Owl memorabilia burned in the backyard, and when his father has a heart attack, he decides to sit in silence with his mother and let him die. Straczynski is trying to turn Nite Owl into Rorschach, and it just doesn’t gel with everything that has been previously established about the character.
It’s unfortunate that Rorschach’s first Before Watchmen appearance is scripted by Straczynski, who writes him as a caricature of Moore’s character. The abuse of Rorschach’s “hurm” for comedic purposes is disgraceful, especially when it happens six times in one issue. Subtlety is lost on Straczynski, who feels the need to have Nite Owl talk about his creeping sense that Silk Spectre and he are meant to be together, a sentiment that’s expressed much more gracefully in a four-panel sequence of Nite Owl watching Dr. Manhattan and Silk Spectre flirt. The closing lines of the issue have a Saturday-morning-cartoon feel, which is the last thing that should be said about anything associated with Watchmen. It’s a shame the story is so rough, because the art team of Andy and Joe Kubert is phenomenal, with Joe’s inks bringing a layer of grit to the story that the writing fails to capture.
Despite being the mastermind of the story, Adrian “Ozymandias” Veidt is arguably the least popular main character of Watchmen, making Len Wein and Jae Lee’s job extra difficult with Before Watchmen: Ozymandias #1 (DC). The issue outlines Adrian’s history as he recounts his life to his pet Bubastis, and beyond some new material regarding the character’s childhood and first foray into superheroics, the plot largely retreads material from Watchmen. Sticking to Moore’s groundwork makes this a stronger entry than Nite Owl, although the emphasis on narration makes the book feel inactive. It’s a classic example of “show, don’t tell,” and it would be nice to see more of the story come out through action between characters rather than an extensive monologue with pictures.
Granted, those pictures are breathtaking, and Jae Lee’s artwork makes Ozymandias the most visually distinct of the Before Watchmen titles. The circular panels articulate that Adrian sees himself as the center of attention by putting a constant spotlight on him. Lee’s most effective storytelling tool is the repetition of tentacle imagery throughout the book, planting the seeds for the beast that Adrian would create in Watchmen. The wallpaper in Adrian’s childhood home has a subtle tentacle pattern; the silhouettes of branches create black tentacles when Adrian is bullied; bloody tentacles materialize into the pharaohs of ancient Egypt when Adrian trips on hashish; the loose cables of Veidt Tower form tentacle shapes as the building is being constructed. The visuals are this book’s main selling point, but like the story, the images can feel a bit static. It will be interesting to see how the story holds up as Wein moves away from the details provided by Moore, but it’s possible that this series will gain Ozymandias some additional fans.
A huge step up from 2010’s Superman: Earth One, Batman: Earth One (DC) is the latest installment in DC’s line of original graphic novels reimagining their flagship characters for a modern audience. Unlike the Superman title, Batman: Earth One is less concerned with making hip cosmetic changes to the characters and more focused on approaching the core concept with a fresh set of eyes. Eyes are an important element of Geoff Johns and Gary Frank’s vision for the Dark Knight, and by leaving Bruce’s eyes unobscured by his mask, we’re given a more human version of Batman. Frank’s characters are very expressive, especially their faces, and seeing the fear or anger in Bruce’s eyes adds a layer of vulnerability to Batman’s character.
This book finds Geoff Johns returning to the character-centric storytelling that defined his classic run on The Flash, and focusing the story on Alfred and Harvey Bullock is an inspired decision. Recasting Alfred as a tough-as-nails ex-Royal Marine and Bullock as a camera-whore Hollywood cop is more than just a surface change, and the characters’ altered roles allow Johns the opportunity to incorporate them into the Batman narrative in new ways. The writer makes Thomas Wayne a bigger part of Gotham City, and he’s running for mayor when he and his wife are gunned down behind the movie theater. Similarly, Martha Wayne has a newfound connection to Gotham’s madness; her maiden name is Arkham, making Bruce the newest fruit to grow on the decayed Arkham family tree. These are significant changes that feel true to Batman’s character, but are still different enough to merit retelling.
Gary Frank turns in the best artwork of his career on Batman: Earth One, and his work has become heavily reminiscent of Dave Gibbons and Brian Bolland in the clarity of storytelling and the detailed linework. The striking cover image represents the interior contents incredibly well, from the determination in Batman’s eyes to the weary sadness in Bruce’s. It takes a while to notice, but Alfred is also toting a shotgun on that cover, immediately establishing that he isn’t just a butler. The Batman action looks great, but the book’s most rousing visuals come courtesy of Harvey Bullock. The splash page of Bullock and his crooked partner Jim Gordon preparing to beat a thug for information shows both characters in the throes of that signature Gotham madness, eager for a fight as Bullock tells the man, “This is Gotham City. It’s bad cop, bad cop.” But the most haunting image of the story comes after Bullock has seen Gotham’s true face and is left irreparably damaged. Standing in front of a wall of booze, we get our first glimpse of the familiar, dumpy Bullock, firmly on the path to self-destruction.
This Batman is still learning the ropes, and Johns takes advantage of Bruce’s inexperience for comedic effect. The issue begins with Batman engaged in a rooftop chase, and when his grappling gun jams, he tries to make the jump between ledges and ends up crashing down to the street below. With the help of badass Alfred and a young Lucius Fox (major hints of The Wire’s Lester Freamon there), Batman becomes a force of vengeance dedicated to taking out the person he believes to be responsible for his parents’ murders: Mayor Oswald Cobblepot. These Earth One titles have been viewed as DC’s response to Marvel’s Ultimate line, and this book reads like Ultimate Batman, combining the different aspects of Batman’s mythology into a more cohesive, streamlined narrative. References to the Crane Institute and siblings Harvey and Jessica Dent show that Johns has planned well beyond this first chapter, and the worst part about the end of this title is the long wait until the next installment.
For the first major crossover between Marvel’s 616 and Ultimate universes, Marvel introduces Peter Parker to his replacement Miles Morales in Spider-Men #1-2 (Marvel), a new mini-series by the Ultimate Spider-Man team of Brian Michael Bendis and Sara Pichelli. Bendis’ writing for the Ultimate line has been consistently stronger than his mainstream Marvel titles, and that disparity is on full display in this series. The first issue follows 616 Peter Parker as he stumbles upon Mysterio, who has gotten his hands on some sort of dimensional transporter that he has been using to cause trouble in the Ultimate universe. Much of the issue is dedicated to Peter’s internal monologue, and it takes too long to get to what is promised on the cover: the first meeting between Peter and Miles.
The second issue is a huge upswing in quality, with great dialogue between Peter and Miles as they try to figure out just what the hell is going on. Pichelli has quickly become one of Marvel’s top talents, and her pencils are photo-realistic but still brimming with life and personality. It’s rare to see a wide variety of different body types in superhero comics, but there’s no way anyone could confuse the scrawny adolescent Miles with the fully grown Peter Parker. In a clever lettering touch, words in the 616 universe are printed all uppercase while the Ultimate universe utilizes lowercase letters.
Some of Bendis’ best moments have been quiet character-based scenes in Ultimate Spider-Man, and the most intriguing aspect of this series is watching Peter realize what has happened to him in this world. It’s going to be great to see Peter’s response to being dead in a world where Gwen Stacy is alive, and judging by Bendis’ past work with Aunt May, her reaction to seeing her nephew all grown up and still a hero is sure to be heart-wrenching. The decompressed first issue may scare some fans away, but as long as Bendis stays in Ultimate mode, Spider-Men is a book worth reading.
June was a huge month for Brian Wood. In addition to his consistently thrilling Conan, he took over writing duties on two X-books and launched his new creator-owned series The Massive. It’s interesting to see how Wood works in the very different worlds, and it’s clear that the more freedom he has on a title, the stronger the results. The Massive #1 (Dark Horse) follows a group of environmentalists who are searching for their missing sister-ship, The Massive, after the world has ended. It’s a unique angle on the post-apocalyptic survivor tale, falling somewhere between Firefly and DMZ with its diverse cast of characters and impressive world building.
Kristian Donaldson provides incredibly detailed artwork, and there is clearly a lot of research put into making all the machinery and environments as realistic as possible. Just look at all the controls in The Kapital’s cockpit or the pipe system that runs throughout the boat. The artwork gets a little stiff when the action heats up, but it’s an acceptable sacrifice for specificity. The middle section of the book shows the timeline of the environmental collapse, and images of sweeping natural disasters are mixed with evocative visuals like the Hong Kong harbor littered with the dead bodies of killer whales. The desolate tone of the issue is spot-on; now Wood has to put a bigger emphasis on building his characters and their relationships.
Considering the stakes of The Kapital’s globe-spanning mission, this first issue is lacking in conflict. The characters are still very much blank slates, and beyond captain Callum Israel’s romance with second-in-command Mary, the personal dynamics on the ship could use more definition. Seeds of discord are planted in this first issue—Mary is a person with no qualms about killing in spite of working within a pacifist organization—but it’s unclear just what path this book will be taking in the future. Rather than ending with a strong cliffhanger, the book closes with a thud, as if the script got cut off in the middle of a paragraph. But in spite of the flaws, there’s enough strong material here to justify taking a trip with The Massive, and Wood has created a situation that opens up plenty of storytelling possibilities.
In a future Los Angeles where food is class, industry, and entertainment, Jiro is a master sushi chef who refuses to play by the rules. The first comic by celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain, who teams with Joel Rose on writing duties, Get Jiro! (Vertigo) is one of the year’s most unusual comic-book projects, and also one of the most fun. Food comics are popular in manga, but have never taken off in the U.S.; Get Jiro! makes the case for more culinary comics, especially if they bring foodies into comic shops and expose the medium to a new audience. When Jiro catches the attention of two rival restaurant crime lords, the story becomes an outlet for Bourdain to express his current feelings about the restaurant industry, specifically the ideological differences between corporate chefs and organic farmers’-market types.
These critiques are spiced up by exquisitely gory action sequences and mouth-watering scenes of food preparation, drawn with a master chef’s attention to detail by Langdon Foss. The same qualities that are considered when creating a meal go into the artwork, and Foss does remarkable work with texture and color to capture the sensation of taste in the visuals. Graphic embellishments help capture the flavor of certain dishes, similar to how Pixar used visuals and sounds in Ratatouille. The restaurant locations are full of distinct characters, and Foss channels the late, great Seth Fisher in his meticulous design work. His style is a great fit for Bourdain and Rose’s story, which balances silly visual gags (gangs use rolling pins, ladles, and meat tenderizers as weapons) with a dramatic story about renegade chefs fighting to reclaim the food industry for themselves.
Roger Langridge’s Muppets comic-book series was one of the best all-ages titles of the past decade, capturing the spirit of Jim Henson’s characters with consistently delightful results. The Muppets #1 (Marvel) is Langridge’s last story with Kermit, Miss Piggy, and the rest of the gang, finished before the creator decided to quit working for Marvel or DC due to ethical concerns over their treatment of creators like Alan Moore and Jack Kirby. Each part of the four-issue miniseries spotlights a different season, beginning with spring and a story of young love. The overarching plot concerns Animal’s brief romance with Meredith, the Magnificent Mountain Mama of Mgahinga, and the love triangle that develops when Meredith’s number-one fan, a 400-pound gorilla named Bruce, enters the picture. As usual, Langridge’s versatility is on full display, with great visual gags (spring chicken!), wordplay, and an understanding of how the comic-strip medium works. The artwork is fluid and expressive, and Langridge finds a way to weave an emotional thread through the madcap comedy. Few people have been able to capture the joy of the Muppets quite like Langridge, and this is the last chance to catch one of the industry’s best cartoonists working on these beloved characters.