In the great debate regarding DC's decision to launch "Before Watchmen," I remain committedly agnostic. I understand the view of those who see Moore and Gibson's creations as unique, not only for their place in the evolution of the comic as an art form but also, perhaps, as characters meant to occupy a singular storyline and go no further. And yes, one should understandably fear the possibility - hyperbole intentional - of these stories feeling like "Hamlet - the Prequel." At the same time, characters passing from one creative team to another lays at the very DNA of superhero comics, part of what makes it a form unlike any other. After all, Moore and Gibson originally imagined their story populated by the Charlton Comics' characters (The Question, Blue Beatle, Captain Atom, etc) before deciding on creating a cast all their own. Just as Gaiman "adopted" the New Gods and made something new and exciting, and Kirby and Shuster's Captain America passed into Brubaker's loving hands, should The Minutemen be any different?
So how is "Before Watchmen: Nite Owl & Dr. Manhattan"? Not as bad as many feared, but given the talent of those involved, probably not as good as it should have been. Indeed, of the "Before Watchmen" books, no other so combines the good and the bad of the effort.
Nite Owl certainly represents a missed opportunity. Michael Straczynski, usually one of my favorite comic writers for his excellent dialogue and bright characterizations here mostly just seems to phone in a prequel/origin story. Wealthy Daniel Drieberg's motivations for donning the cowl read like boiler plate serial stuff. His early days being trained by the original Nite Owl give the reader a similar sense of having "been there, done that." In terms of the one bit of new character insight that the book does deliver... well, if you've spent the last few decades wondering as to the why of Daniel's particular and peculiar sexual dysfunction, this is your lucky day! Question answered. Perhaps I speak for no other readers, but I'd really have preferred a story that mined the rich vein of Nite Owl and Rorschach's complex relationship.
On the flip side, Dr. Manhattan represents some of the most original storytelling in this whole endeavor. Straczynski here embraces the constraints writing a prequel, shining a whole new light on a story that we saw in the original book, Dr. Manhattan's origin. Here we see it conceived of, not as an unalterable linear path, but as a series of decisions, each of which could have taken the good doctor into a far different life. (A note here: some will object at liberties taken, since in the original story Manhattan embraced determinism and explained that he has no choice, that none of us do, and that the only difference between his god-like power and we ants is that he "can see the strings." To those who feel the need to wail and froth about this writerly choice, I say get over yourself). Dr. Manhattan's choices are often interesting and usually inspired by the most quotidian of motivations (and you thought the world was saved before because the good doctor had a weakness for jail bait?!). Would we have liked Dr. Jon Osterman? Could it be that he had as much potential as a mere human as he did as a near-god? Could the whole Watchmen universe really begin at the series end?
By the by, Adam Hughes' art work serves this particular series quite well. His style, so smooth and seemingly effortless, harkens back to much of the beauty in Gibbons' original while still making it wholly his own. And of course, while I could of course do with fewer giant blue shlong levitating about, Hughes doesn't, um, overwork the image.
These various "splits" as the story branches as decision points give the reader a wonderful insight into Dr. Manhattan's essential humanity. That humanity, so crucial to Watchmen's plot, just delights. And so we get thoughts of loss. Questions of what it means to be human, an examination of the profound prison that is loneliness. One can also spot any number of interesting Freudian Easter Eggs that seek to deepen the meaning of otherwise minor points in Moore and Gibson's original. I especially liked Dr. Manhattan's interactions with the world's smartest man, Ozymandias (no more significant that "the world's smartest ant"). This scene as much as any in the whole of this project served to enrich the larger Watchmen universe.
As with other of the Watchmen collections, this one includes a shorter back up story, in this case the two-issue "Moloch." For those who don't recall, Moloch serves as the catch all super-villain in the Watchmen universe. He wasn't all that interesting in the Moore/Gibson original, save in that he demonstrated that age could render villains every bit as pathetic as any hero. As with Nite Owl, this book leaves one wondering why it needed to exist at all. We get a lot of back story, answering questions we probably didn't need answered. As is the current default origin story for comic villains, we learn that Moloch's background was tragic and that we should feel sorry for him. All that being said, this story does contain a few bright lights. As with Dr. Manhattan, Straczynski again demonstrates a flair for writing Ozymandias, one which makes me wish he'd been given that book (see my review). Moloch and Ozymandias's interactions deepen both characters, giving the former some much needed agency and making the latter still creepier (making Ozymandias creepier seems to be a major theme running through much of Before Watchmen). Eduardo Risso's art also fits this story beautifully, hisstyle and muted colors exuding a certain neo-gothic feel that evokes dark fairytales.
While not the best "Before Watchmen" chapter, "Nite Owl & Dr. Midnight" mostly holds its own and certainly isn't the worst. Still, as with much of this enterprise, this book is too often a sad reminder of what might have been.