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…And the Superhuman Review – Before Watchmen: Moloch #1

Every week, Chad Nevett and I will be reviewing an issue of Before Watchmen through a discussion of each issue. We continue with Moloch #1, written by J. Michael Straczynski, drawn by Eduardo Risso and colored by Trish Mulvihill .

Enjoy!

Brian Cronin: I’ll be honest, all throughout the issue, I couldn’t help but think of Allen Ginsburg’s classic poem, Howl (specifically Part II). My roommate in college was a big Ginsburg fan and he had this recording of Ginsburg reading the poem that we used to listen to frequently because Ginsburg really gets into it. It’s quite entertaining.

Moloch in whom I sit lonely! Moloch in whom I dream Angels! Crazy in Moloch! Cocksucker in Moloch! Lacklove and manless in Moloch! Moloch who entered my soul early! Moloch in whom I am a consciousness without a body! Moloch who frightened me out of my natural ecstasy! Moloch whom I abandon! Wake up in Moloch! Light streaming out of the sky!

Anyhow, all through the issue, I kept doing Allen Ginsburg impressions in my mind. Constant Allen Ginsburg impressions in your brain are pretty distracting when you’re reading a comic book.

That said, this was a decent comic book that continues the Before Watchmen trend of having amazing artwork. Eduardo Risso and Trish Mulvihill are one of the best art teams in the whole business. Can you ever recall an issue by the pair that WASN’T really cool looking? I am always amazed at just how well Mulvihill’s colors match Risso’s drawings. It is like the two share a brain frequency. Risso, meanwhile, has that devastating one-two punch of fascinatingly designed characters and impeccable panel design.

Risso’s such a great storyteller. Who do you think is the best storyteller of all of the Before Watchmen artists? I think it comes down to a Final Four of Cooke, Conner, Lee and Risso. Those four are all absolutely brilliant. Risso probably doesn’t win the top prize, but it is close. I think I’ll go with…Cooke. Who would your choice be?

(That said, as great as Risso was in this issue, I thought he did an odd job with the scene where Moloch bursts in on the magician having sex with the magician’s assistant. The perspective was really weird. It didn’t even look like they were having sex)

As for the story, Straczynski tells a compelling tale of a guy treated like a monster his whole life so he figured he’d just embrace the role he was literally born to play. His progression through life was interesting, as was the realization he had that we also saw Len Wein show us in Ozymandias, which is that Doctor Manhattan truly was a game-changer for everyone. I liked the cliffhanger of Ozymandias and Moloch meeting up. We actually get to see them work together all ready! I guess we learned the only way you can get a Before Watchmen story to actually move along at faster than a glacial pace – have it be just two issues long!

An interesting problem I had while reading the book was that I sort of saw Moloch in the original Watchmen comics as being a bit of a sad sack villain, you know, sort of the perennial punching bag who was fought because he was the only guy willing to BE a super-villain. I thought he was almost harmless, so his sadistic violence in this issue shook me a bit at first, but then I went back and re-read his scenes in Watchmen and they DO mention him doing stuff like bombing the Stock Exchange. That’s pretty fucked up, so I guess this is not out of character.

In retrospect, the story Straczynski is telling here is very similar to his Nite-Owl origin story. You know, a lot of over-the-top stuff with heavy symbolism everywhere, but while I thought it seemed out of place in the Nite-Owl issue, I thought it worked for Moloch. I think it is because Moloch IS over-the-top. The dude is a monster-looking dude named Moloch the Magnificent! He’s the only self-identified super-villain of the Watchmen universe! So I think that the storytelling style worked for this story.

Chad Nevett: I’ll echo the sentiments about the art. Gorgeous stuff. I was put off a bit by the over-the-top depicition of Moloch as an almost goblin creature. That clearly comes from the writing, which plays up the idea of him as a freak… which I never got from Watchmen. He had weird ears and wasn’t the best looking guy in the world — but who was in that book? Was he always meant to be so physically repulsive? I know that that doesn’t really matter, but, if there is the change, why? Is it necessary to provide a hook for the character?

My big complaints are the standard Straczynski complaints. It’s almost not fair, because he keeps doing the same things and it’s repetitive to bring them up every single time. What I found interesting was comparing this to the usual Risso/Azzarello collaborations and how much Azzarello seems to trust Risso. Azzarello can be a verbose writer and loves the English language, but he’s also much more judicious in his use of dialogue and narration, especially with Risso. He’s not afraid to pull back quite a bit and let Risso do the heavy lifting. That wasn’t the case here. I mean, Risso wound up doing the heavy lifting by default, but that’s more because he HAD to, not because the comic was designed that way. I wonder if Straczynski knew who the artist would be… and if that actually mattered to how he wrote this issue.

BC: No, you’re right, Moloch was never depicted as being this hideous in the original books. Risso is so good at drawing creepy stuff that I think that the change worked, but yeah, it is fair to say that if the argument for his character development was based on him looking like a total monster then that is new to the character.

What are your particular problems with Straczynski’s handling of Moloch? The over-the-top stuff? The lack of subtlety?

Also, answer my best storyteller question, damn you!!!

CN: Lack of subtlety. More than that, just how… obvious the entire thing is. The lack of originality. The lack of subtlety about how it’s lacking in originality? Yeah, that describes it best. This is a terribly wellworn plot, one that follows a fairly specific path and seems to glorify in the fact that it does. It’s very much a retread of Ozymandias’s origin story right down to Dr. Manhattan being the turning point and I have no doubt that that’s meant to be purposeful given how Moloch is used by Ozymandias. But, it’s the sort of plot that, while reading the issue, I kept waiting for something to surprise me in any small way and there simply isn’t anything. I mean, aside from Moloch the Troll.

Based on their work on these books, I’d pick Amanda Conner as the top storyteller. Her work on the Silk Spectre mini has been amazing. So much of how we view/relate to Laurie comes from the way Conner draws her, especially in panel-to-panel sequences. Cooke is a close second.

This two-issue mini was introduced as a schedule-filler, partly because of the impact of Joe Kubert’s death on the project and, partly, I assume, because other books were slipping from their schedule. Does it feel necessary? Does it transcend its ‘filler’ nature for you? And, would you rank it above any of the other Before Watchmen series so far (at least in comparing first issues)?

BC: It definitely lacked originality, and when you bring it up, while I was giving Straczynski a pass in the whole “how many different ways could you really play this thing?” sort of way, I realize that that likely IS a bit too forgiving on my part, because while yeah, I can’t think of many ways to do Moloch’s story other than this, a professional comic book writer presumably could.

And speaking to the filler nature of this series, that likely is what we are seeing. Since it is, indeed, a filler series, Straczynski is not exactly going to spend time breaking new ground with it, ya know?

As for how it compares to the other titles, I think it compares pretty well to Straczynski’s other two books. They both seem on the filler side of things, as well. Especially his Doctor Manhattan tale, which currently seems to be “just let Adam Hughes draw cool parallel realities for two issues.”

CN: Dr. Manhattan is just sort of dull. Nite Owl is actively bad. This one seems like a cross between the two. The same storytelling approach of Nite Owl with the same amount of interesting things as Dr. Manhattan. The worst of both worlds!

I think we can definitively say that Straczynski is simply a bad comics writer. Say what you will about this projects, but Azzarello, Cooke, and Conner are all doing much better work. Even Len Wein is blowing JMS out of the water and I’m not the biggest fan of his writing style on Ozymandias.

Reading Moloch #1, it’s great art and writing that makes me wish they’d somehow convinced Azzarello to do it.

BC: Yeah, like I noted before, the approach here is VERY similar to that of Nite Owl, but I think it works better here. So I’d definitely put this book above Nite Owl, while it is a toss-up for me whether it is better than Doctor Manhattan. That second issue of Doctor Manhattan really irked me in how it just repeated the same ideas as #1 for an entire second issue ad nauseum. But okay, I guess Doctor Manhattan probably still edges out Moloch, quality-wise. That first Doctor Manhattan issue was pretty good.

As for Straczynski being just a plain ol’ bad comic book writer, I wouldn’t go that far. Has he done a poor job on Before Watchmen? Certainly. But I have read enough good comic books from him that I think he definitely does have some real strong comic book writing talent. We just haven’t seen a lot of it between Before Watchmen, Grounded, Odyssey and the non-JRjr issues of Amazing Spider-Man. Actually, his first Earth One Superman book wasn’t that bad, either. I haven’t read the second volume yet (I have it, just haven’t read it yet).

CN: Ah, you’re just being your usual nice, diplomatic self. Granted, I dug Rising Stars and Midnight Nation. Let’s put it this way, he hasn’t written a good comic in quite some time. Before Watchmen is no exception. I think this is the project that has finally used up all of the good will he built up with Babylon 5.

BC: Oh, don’t get me wrong, I haven’t looked forward to a book written by him since his Brave and the Bold run began in mid-2009 (which turned out poorly enough that I was not expecting a lot from Grounded or Odyssey, and they still failed to meet my lowered expectations), but I think that there are so many comic book writers who have just flat out never written anything good that they are what I would term “just bad comic book writers” as opposed to good writers who have lost their way a bit. I think Straczynski falls into that latter category. The first eight years or so of his comic book writing career was good. The last three years have not been good. I don’t think the latter necessarily supersedes the former. I still have hope for him!

CN: Ever the optimist… prepare for disappointment.

BC: Preparing for disappointment is the best way to read any Before Watchmen comic.

24 Comments

this issue was very stupid. it could be better if it wasn’t about moloch and watchmen, but some other fictious villain.

all of the before watchmen are poor fanfics and are spit onf moore’s face. sorry, but that’s how I feel.
But the art is good.

Oh, I love Brian for that last sentence.

Anyone else thinking that the caption for the cover should be “is THIS your card?”

“Marked? No, they’re not marked cards.”

I agree that Moloch never seemed this nasty to me in the original. I don’t know if it’s what Moore intended, but I saw him as the supervillain equivalent of those Warner Bros. cartoons where the coyote and the sheepdog say good morning to each other as they punch their punchcards at the start of the day, then proceed to battle over the sheep all day until quitting time and say goodnight as they punch out. Probably the combination of his “mystic” angle making him seem more like a conman than a vicious crime boss and the rather banal life he was leading and less-than-portentious interactions with the other characters.

Also, he was pretty ghoulish-looking in the original, but he was also an old man with cancer. The picture of him as a younger man in the “Under the Hood” excerpt looks like a perfectly normal guy aside from the pointy ears (which weren’t nearly as pointy as his ears in this issue).

“Preparing for disappointment is the best way to read any Before Watchmen comic.”

How many issues are they doing? Four times six or so, plus this Moloch two-parter? Two dozen-odd comics by a wide variety of writers, artists, inkers and so on… and in one sentence you’ve rendered them redundant. There is really nothing more that needs to be said. Frankly, you can probably just stick that quote up on the masthead and not even bother reviewing the rest. Seriously! Just go have a vacation or something. You’ve done your job better than I thought anyone could. Well done!

(God I love you guys. Keep it up, I’ll be watching!)

There are about 3 dozen or so BW comics.

I was wondering why you guys didn’t have any pull quotes used in the BW ads. Now I know!

Yes, this is rubbish. Moloch was just a little peculiar looking in the originals, not the kind of freak that would scare his parents.

I already own Megamind on bluray. 3D even! Why would I buy this comic?

I think that listening to the recording of Ginsberg reading Howl would elevate any comic reading to a somewhat pleasing/strange experience :) I really like it too, here’s the link for anyone interested:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2p_kKhRmRkM

I agree on Moloch’s appearance. He was not some sort of mutant freak in Watchmen. Frankly, his appearance was pretty much within the boundaries of “normal.” His ears only suggested points. So if he’s supposed to be that goblin in those pages, that’s a serious misread of the character and frankly, the complete work. I was always given to believe that there was precisely ONE metahuman in Watchmen — Dr. Manhattan. Everyone else was completely human, relying on gadgets, training, or genius. And that was by design.

And yes, JMS’s prime comic outpoint ended with Midnight Nation and Rising Stars. I don’t really understand why he keeps getting work. It’s not like he’s a household name with crossover appeal. As far as the plot of this particular comic goes, I can’t comment, since I actively avoid his work now.

Yeah, it’s strange. JMS always claimed to have a life-long admiration for Alan Moore’s works, and almost every comic book story he’s written seems to be inspired by Moore (magical totemic Spider-Man = magical elemental Swamp Thing, Supreme Power = Miracleman) and he’s the one most outspoken about how iconic the Watchmen characters are and how others must be allowed to work with them.

And then, when he gets the chance to write the Watchmen characters, HE JUST DOESN’T GET THEM. Amazing. And he’s suppposed to be a life-long fan and influenced by Moore. I just don’t understand.

I mean, I understand that JMS has fallen into hard times as a creator. It happens, it happens to a lot of writers and musicians and directors reach a descending curve eventually. JMS reached a sharp one a few years ago. But at least with Watchmen, I thought he’d understand the basics of the characters and world. But Moloch is a freaky mutant, Dr. Manhattan can see alternate timelines, what the hell?

I have no problem with Moloch’s look. He is telling the story. We see Moloch as Moloch sees himself.

Children can be horribly cruel, especially in packs. Even if he was just a homely kid with goofy ears, their treatment of him is not unbelievable. And again, we are seeing things the way he remembers them.

You know, that could make sense. Almost. Still strange that his parents gave him away because he was just slightly funny-looking with ears that just suggest points. But maybe the parents gave him away for other reasons, and Moloch is just imagining that the reason was his appearance.

Even so… I know the guys working on this aren’t beholden to Moore and Gibbons’s storytelling devices. Gibbons was almost architetonical, and always depicted things as they were, dispassionately. You didn’t see Rorschach over-deformed in his childhood flashbacks. But they aren’t beholden to that.

But I think you’re giving JMS too much credit.

I kind of feel like the least-Watchmen thing you could do with Moloch would be to give him a standard super-villain origin like the one depicted here.

The trouble I have with JMS’s writing is that everything is so over-determined and over-motivated in his stories; what should be clever little details and foreshadowing that you notice on a second reading always are always inflated into plot points or spelled out in the dialogue. All the “happy accidents” of (fictional) lives become crashingly obvious symbols or drearily explicit speeches.

This is exactly what makes him a Moore fan without making him able to write like Moore: he seems like a guy who notices all the clever, subtle stuff and wants to explain it to everyone. There’s a way some of us have of admiring great writing that turns into a distrust of other readers; we spot the shadings and the themes, and they need us to tell them all of it or, we imagine, they just won’t *get it*.

That’s what JMS does with Moore’s and his own writing in recent years. Since coincidences in well-written works should be thematically motivated, JMS makes coincidences in his own story intot he results of direct, motivated action: not coincidences at all, then. This lets him trot out a character or present an image that spells out the thematic connection to the reader…that imagined other reader who may not “understand” the really great idea, who can’t admire it as well as the “smart reader” who could practically write the story her- or himself.

Very interesting post, Omar. I think you are into something. There is a lot of intensity in JMS’s work, but somehow it doesn’t feel like it’s “earned” intensity.

It’s less intensity than insistence, I guess.

ZZZ: That’s a spectacular analogy to Looney Tunes.

I like “insistence,” but again, it seems like JMS is insisting on something that isn’t there. Mutt’s point could be valid, but nothing else in the book (out of curiosity, I borrowed and read it) suggests unreliable narrator to me. It just read like he slapped a standard supervillain backstory on a minor character.

Now the Looney Tunes thing? That’s brilliant. I’d pay to read THAT Moloch story.

I always figured Moloch was a guy who had a minor stage career and some shady ties, who sees the heroes getting to be celebrities. He’d go superhero, but he’s not connected, he doesn’t like getting into fistfights, and he maybe has a minor offense or two on his record that’s just scandalous enough — busted smoking dope back whent hat was a “black” drug, or caught at a brothel — that, with his more obvious Jewish heritage, tells him he’s not gonna be the male Silk Spectre anytime soon.

So he thinks scandal and sell-out is a better move; heroes need villains, right? Playing all these little clubs and so forth, he knows some vaguely shady, but not hardcore criminal types, and he decides to make a name that he can use to sell his act. A few flashy misdemeanors, or some petty crime, and Moloch the Mystic makes the papers and sells out big when released. And hey, it works! he gets his head kicked in by the Comedian — what a jerk! — but it’s all over the news. the crime isn’t that big, the jury is just starstruck enough, and he gets a light little sentence. Not only that, but agents and lawyers want to sew up books, interviews, all the rest!

He has to keep his name in the papers, though. Moloch starts staging bigger and bigger crimes and stunts, even some with nonsense gadgets that don’t really work like that “solar death ray” thing the Minutemen ended up with as a trophy. He’s never all that violent, not in public, he stays away from the serious criminals, and everyone gets publicity. No one’s that interested in slamming him into a maximum-security hellhole, either, since law enforcement regards him more as a nuisance than anything despite how the tabloids print up his interviews after paying him off.

But then it starts to go bad. The public gets sick of the Minutemen after a few too many little scandals, and, anyway, the heroes are old hat. Moloch isn’t getting those offers, and his celebrity status vanishes. McCarthyism comes in, as do the moral panics of the 1950s, and a guy like him who hangs out with the wrong crowd turns him into a scapegoat for the worst of the anti-costumed-brigade backlash. His career’s in the toilet; his autobiography, meant as a bestseller, becomes a favorite for book-burnings by church leaders. He starts to genuinely hate the Minutemen; how can they do this to him, going away when he needs them aroudn to make a living? He gets desperate, and the next time he’s busted for something it’s a real attempt at a robbery and he gets treated like a real felon.

By the time he’s out of prison on parole, there’s nothing for him but actual crime. He’s a bit of a name, still in the wrong crowds, and he’s charismatic, so running in the relatively nonviolent world of underground prostitution, drug, and gambling rackets is perfect for him. He’s got a second career now as a sleaze king, and he can lie to himself about the lives he’s ruining, but his vice dens are raided by the man the government wants to make look good — Dr. Manhattan. Seeing a man killed in front of him by a power he can’t understand and going back for hard time again is enough to break him. While he’s in jail, the “Son of Sam” laws of the 1970s take away the possibility of revenue from the sort of interviews and tell-alls he worked out in the 1940s.

He gets parole again, mostly because no one thinks much of him at all, and has to take whatever jobs he’s offered: menial labor at Pyramid Technology, janitorial work, whatever is there. By the 1980s, he’s living in a cheap apartment, hoping for a nostalgia boom to provide some residuals from work he did before the remuneration laws came in. Rorschach torments him even though the underworld figures never really talked to Moloch the joke, tolerated as a distraction and a bit of Sinatra-like glamor that’s long since faded.

And one night, there’s a knock at the door. It’s Adrian Veidt, who had once encouraged him to work at Pyramid. Maybe it’s a new opportunity. He opens it for the last time….

Omar, that’s way better than what we got.

“Preparing for disappointment is the best way to read any Before Watchmen comic.” I agree 200% to that, very well said!

Yes, that is pretty good, Omar. And very logical considering all that I know of Watchmen. But perhaps that is the inherent problem with Before Watchmen. Alan Moore already told everything that needs to be told about the characters. They could have some smart, perceptive people doing stories that are logical extrapolations, or they could have what they’ve got: clueless writers that seem to write in some alternate Watchmen universe. The first is redundant, the second is tacky and slightly offensive.

Will there be any more installments of this? It’s been over a month. I was enjoying reading these reviews, but something like five issues have come out since the last one. I’m hoping this feature didn’t go the way of 100 Days of Justice League International and quietly die.

Still holding out that this will resume by the time Before Watchmen ends. At a once a week pace, it shouldn’t be too hard to catch up, considering all the delays.

3 months now. With only a handful of Before Watchmen issues left, but so many delays, I do wonder if this feature or Before Watchmen will finish first.

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