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…And the Superhuman Review – Before Watchmen: Ozymandias #4

Chad Nevett and I will be reviewing every issue of Before Watchmen through a discussion with each other. We continue with Ozymandias #4 by Len Wein (writer), Jae Lee (art) and June Chung (colors).

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Brian Cronin: It’s intriguing to me how little we often really know about the whys and wherefores of why an artist’s work looks a bit off from their normal standard. People throw out terms like “It was rushed” as if we had any real clue as to the situation behind the production of the artwork. I mean, okay, in some instances, we know for a fact that an artist was, indeed, rushed, but most other times we don’t know the true story of how a piece of art was produced. I bring this up because after a cursory look at the artwork for Before Watchmen: Ozymandias #4, it appears to me as though colorist June Chung was doing a lot more of the finished Jae Lee artwork than normal. I love me some Jae Lee, as you well know. LOVE his work. However, at times there seemed to be a certain lack of definition in the characters that struck me as perhaps a result of Lee doing slightly looser pencils than normal and Chung having to fill in more of the definition herself, and as we have seen for many years through a similar situation with Salvador Larroca and Frank D’Armata on Invincible Iron Man, the end result is slightly blurred character edges. Characters end up looking almost formless at times. Doctor Manhattan on the last page, for instance, really stood out to me in a lack of definition.

Beyond that, though, we got our standard amazing issue of Jae Lee artwork. One of the things that always stands out to me about Jae Lee is not only his expert character designs, but the way he frames pages. He’s like a maestro out there, controlling our perspective with approaches that would never occur to other artists but have almost become second hat to him by now. Even something as seemingly simple as having JFK in the foreground while Ozymandias is in the background pop more than normal with how he chooses to frame them in that panel and how large to make each character. Or his powerful sense of shadows – he uses negative space in his panels more than any other artist i can think of offhand. Very impressive work.

As to the story, I think Len Wein is being hurt a bit by J. Michael Straczynski’s overreaching gait with his Doctor Manhattan series. It would have been interesting to see the Cuban Missile Crisis both from Manhattan’s perspective and Ozymandias’, but instead we got both already in Doctor Manhattan so it seems redundant getting it now. That’s not Wein’s fault, of course.

Wein seems to be giving us a pretty standard by-the-book step-by-step timeline of Ozymandias’ life, with two notable wrinkles. One, I enjoyed Wein’s decision to frame the JFK assassination as something that not even Ozymandias can figure out, especially when framed against all of the earlier sequences where he figures out everyone he sees very quickly. Second, the origin of Nostaliga. Remember how Straczynski has been annoyingly over-the-top with his “so that’s how this came about” sequences? Wein and Lee are the opposite with the revelation of the Nostalgia perfume. It was a touching tribute to Ozymandias’ lost love (although, as we’ve debated, it is a probably not the best idea for that to even be part of Ozymandias’ back story, but eh, what’s done is done).

Do you think that the Kennedys are being portrayed consistently in the Before Watchmen books so far?

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Chad Nevett: Speaking the Crime-Busters meeting, we get another look at it this issue. Though, there isn’t really anything new or different here beyond Jae Lee drawing it. I would agree that this is an issue where the colouring has a stronger presence in the finished art than usual. Considering how much work seems to be going into Lee’s layouts for each page, it wouldn’t surprise me if the actual line work details are the thing to slip since, one could argue, Chung does the necessary work to finish them — and, the specific line work isn’t what seems to interest Lee here. The line work is almost an afterthought — a tedious necessity to ‘finish’ the page after all of the ‘real work’ has been done on it. He’s almost approaching this like an architect who also has to build the building he designed and has lost interest in that part of the process. His art, over the past few years, has been moving in a more ethereal direction as he focuses more on design and layout. That doesn’t bother me too much, because the overall impression is there. There’s also something appealing in a ‘walk down memory lane’ sort of story having vaguer, less defined art. While we’re not meant to doubt Adrian’s recollections, they are still recollections and shouldn’t be completely accurate. The art reflects that. I dig it.

This was the weakest issue of the series so far for me, from a writing/plot perspective. It’s a definite ‘move the plot along’ transition sort of issue. Not much compelled me here beyond the Lee/Chung art. It doesn’t help that we’ve officially entered territory covered by Watchmen more. The first three issues were less defined by Watchmen and were able to expand on what little bits of information we had about Adrian’s past. Now, it’s more about taking sequences from that book, putting them in chronological order, adding some connecting scenes and narration. Maybe the remaining issues will prove me wrong. (Fair warning for our readers, obviously we’ve both read the remaining issues, but I honestly can’t remember them too specifically and am rereading these comics as we finish off this project of ours.)

I think the way that Azzarello writes the Kennedys is different from Wein and Straczynski, but that’s because Azzarello seems a bit more in the James Ellroy school, while Wein and Straczynski seem to draw more from the coventional/mainstream depictions of the men. It’s not a big difference, but it’s definitely noticeable. One is more subtle (and kind) in how it approaches their greatness and their flaws; while the other is bit more sensationalistic and harder edged in showing both. The biggest difference in interpretation seems to be the art. JG Jones went for a far more photoreferenced look than Lee provides here. He provides an accurate impression of the men upon first glance, but takes more liberties, filtering them through his sensibility like the rest of the characters.

BC: Yeah, we saw the Crime-Busters meeting, but Wein at least didn’t try to give us a new spin on it. I understand that we sort of have to show the meeting in most of these series for the reasons you mentioned in the Silk Spectre #4 piece (it is one of the few times that all of the characters were in a room together until the events of Watchmen) but it is such an amazing scene in the original book that I don’t think these writers will do anything that is any better than what Moore and Gibbons did in the original and in fact, the odds are that they’ll end up doing much worse. Wein smartly just addresses it and moves on.

Interesting take on Lee’s art. I think we both agree that he is primarily about layouts – and oh man is he amazing at layouts. However, I think you’re being a bit too kind regarding the somewhat amorphous nature of his characters. While your theory is very clever, I don’t think that was his actual intent.

And yeah, I definitely did not like the “marking scenes off of a checklist” nature of this issue either.

James Ellroy is EXACTLY how Azzarello is writing the Kennedys. Good call! Quick tangent – roughly 14 years or so my mom flew out to a library conference in the Midwest (I think it was St. Louis). So Ellroy was giving a talk/lecture/whatever and my mom attended, which is hilarious to me since my mom is a children’s librarian and Ellroy is about 180 degrees different from the sort of books she is into (kids books at work and romance novels at home). She said he was an interesting guy but yeah, definitely not her cuppa tea.

CN: As I’ve said many times before, intention doesn’t matter in a big way to me. If it’s in the work, it’s in the work. Many of the best things happen by accident.

I don’t know why, but the stuff with the Cuban Missile Crisis bothers me. I guess because it plays out exactly as it did in our world, mostly because Moore had already established that in Watchmen through the world he and Gibbons created. But, it does run up against an interesting problem: of course Kennedy would ask the advice of “The World’s Smartest Man,” but, then, his advice leads to the exact same result that happened in our world where Adrian doesn’t exist…? It just seems weird to me. A little… lame… Especially given how Nixon later used Dr. Manhattan to a fairly successful degree in Vietnam without direct conflict with the USSR as a result. Dr. Manhattan #2 showed up two versions of this, but that highlighted the differences between Adrian and Edward Blake — not what the use of Dr. Manhattan would have done. I don’t know… It just rubbed me a little wrong. Like it was something that so was tied by established knowledge that it might as well have not been addressed at all.

Or, Adrian not being able to figure out the Kennedy Assassination…? Again, it seemed like something that was depicted a certain way because it couldn’t be shown differently and comes off as neutered and weak as a result.

If anything, this issue’s checlist approach makes Adrian seem less interesting, less capable. He just sort of floats through this issue, not doing anything of note, merely a tool of his inescapable fate. It’s one of the worst ways to write a prequel… The one that shows that it’s not at all necessary. Now, the complete series isn’t like this, thankfully, but, for one issue, it’s the definition of “Not at all needed, so why did you bother?”

BC: Fair enough. I never think about artistic choices when it comes to authorial intent but I guess there’s no good reason that I shouldn’t.

As for the Cuban Missile Crisis, I suppose that they’re sort of constrained by the text of Watchmen there, no? But now that I think about it, I see the concern – essentially, even if you’re constrained by what happened in Watchmen, you didn’t have to have the Crisis resolved the exact same way it was in real life. So Ozymandias, a dude who came up with a fake alien invasion of Earth to stop world war could only come up with the same solution normal diplomats could? Although, maybe that’s the point. Before the Crimebusters meeting convinced him that he had to save the world, he DIDN’T think much differently than other people on a global scale and therefore that’s what this is meant to show – a contrast between how he once thought and how he eventually came to think.

I still like the assassination stuff, though, to show that some things just can’t be solved. Heck, if you want to go back to the earlier point about the Crimebusters meeting being such a turning point, maybe the fact that the meeting followed the one time he COULDN’T figure out an answer to a problem was an important piece of Ozymandias’ development.

So perhaps this issue’s story was more necessary to his arc than we first thought.

CN: That’s an interesting take on this. While Adrian was smart and had potential, he was limited by self-imposed boundaries of scale and creativity, even in situations that would have been conducive to his intelligence… That does make this issue more worthwhile. You know me, any argument that takes a seemingly weak work and argues that its weaknesses are actually strengths is going to win me over. Look on the positive side of things! I love it.

BC: I dunno, I think what we’re doing here is determining that perhaps what we THOUGHT were weaknesses were not. We thought that there wasn’t much forward movement in Wein’s plot but now it seems like it might have been there all along. Plus, I’d like to believe we’re not actively trying to find the “good side” but just trying to see other possible angles in the work.

CN: Ha. Yeah. I was just flashing back to writing about Avengers vs. X-Men and people having that sort of reaction to my reading of that book. It seems like what we do sometimes comes off as justifying ‘bad’ comics. I don’t agree. I’m with you 100% that it’s about exploring the work and not being stopped by an ‘easy’ first impression. Or a second one. Or even a third. And, honestly, these are comics that got dismissed before a first impression of the work itself. It’s fun to see what’s there and see if there’s something worthwhile. This issue looked like a transitional issue on first look, but I think there is more going on there now. It’s a straight line to that final scene as Adrian seems… flat, listless, at his limit, just waiting for something to break him out.

Going back to the art, do you think Wein and Lee are moving in the same direction? I mentioned that Lee’s art matches the idea of memory, but that’s not all Wein is doing here. Do Lee’s layouts and approach fit with Wein’s push towards a man reaching ‘greatness,’ hitting a wall, and, then, reaching even higher to save the world from a threat no one else can even see as a threat?

BC: Aha, I gotcha, I failed to pick up on your sarcasm. Bad job, Brian! And yeah, the ridiculous assertion that you were intentionally trying to make Bendis look good on your Age of Ultron reviews was surpassed in foolishness only by the repeated assertions that Bendis did not (and/or does not) put a lot of thought into his work, which is just astonishingly false. Just no basis in remote reality besides “I don’t like Bendis’ work, therefore Bendis does not put a lot of thought into his work, even though he clearly does.”

As for Wein and Lee matching each other, there is not a great match but Lee rarely seems to quite match his writers. He often seems to end up with a writer with a different style. I thought Peter David and Robin Furth did a wonderful job adapting Dark Tower to fit Jae Lee’s style. But then you have stuff like Chuck Austen and Jae Lee on Captain America where the art is the only redeeming part of the story. Man, between Lee and John Cassaday, that volume of Captain America wasted more great art this side of Alex Toth’s Hot Wheels!

CN: If I was on as many payrolls as people have accused me of being over the years, I would be the wealthiest man in comics.

Jae Lee’s career has been kind of interesting, especially over the past while, where he works on projects that have some prestige (Dark Tower, Before Watchmen, Superman/Batman), but also don’t really gain him a lot of notice from the sort of people who would probably go crazy for his art. It’s a little weird. He’s kind of flying under the radar. Hell, I’m pretty sure 95% of the people who heard good things about his work here only did so because they read Jog’s short piece on his art in this series. Otherwise, he works in a weird sort of obscurity from the critical community.

BC: I guess he is flying under the radar in the sense that he doesn’t get AS much attention as he deserves, critically, but the guy is still a pretty big name. As you note, he still gets primo assignments and he was even chosen to launch a Batman/Superman monthly comic when everyone who knows anything would have told you ( correctly) that he was never going to keep up a monthly pace (as it turned out, he couldn’t finish the first issue even). So I think he’s on people’s radars, he just isn’t quite as appreciated as he should be.

CN: Too true.

11 Comments

I was surprised to see that Ozymandias already had his Antarctic fortress in 1961. How was he getting TV down there? Telstar wasn’t even launched until July 1962.

ja, i ve loved jae lee since i was like eight with his wildcats trilogy and furthermore whats amazed me since is how refined his one of a kind style has been since his inception to the medium, while still obviously evolving he s always had this distinction about his work that i find hard not to emulate tho impossible to not want to imitate, if that makes any sense.

The advantage of this whole “After Watchmen” experiment is that it shows extremely well what was and wasn’t awesome about the original text.

Let’s be honest, the plot itself is nothing special. It is a pretty standard issue mystery and it strings together a pretty decent Mad Magazine style satire of superheroes. It is good, but not mind-blowing in hindsight.

What was mind-blowing was how Moore and Gibbons executed their story in the medium of comics. The layering and the density are amazing. The use of the nine-panel grid and the use of cinematic story-telling it enables worked extremely well. The use of the unreliable narrator, objective correlative and the other literary devices are equally radical.

Seeing talented creators like Wein and Lee go down another path and wind up with nothing special really hammers that home.

@dean
i hadnt thought of it like that, but you re absolutely right.

wel…beyond the amazing art and neat little story, i guess. those re things.

messrs BC & CN, have we discussed the Comedian series yet?

thank you and that makes sense, um i ve got some reading to catch up on

I am going to disagree with Dean, in that I think both the plot and the satirical themes in WATCHMEN were also as mind-blowing and powerful as the narrative techniques, in the time the series was first published.

It’s just that they have been so copied and referenced, that they became a part of the status quo. The mystery plot in the heart of WATCHMEN is of the same variety that appears in Douglas Adam’s Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, and later in Moore’s own FROM HELL. It’s a murder investigation that unravels the whole society where the murder took place.

At the time, that was a pretty original and powerful concept. Now, almost 30 years later, everybody has done it. TWIN PEAKS, the movie version of I, ROBOT, even Moore himself with FROM HELL, as noted above.

The extreme satire of superheroes that WATCHMEN introduced was also pretty mind-bending at the time. Now, it’s sort of standard procedure to present superheroes that are just one inch away from complete dysfunction.

In TV TROPES they call this phenomenon “Seinfeld is unfunny”. Something that once was so world-shaking that it became the new status quo, and in this process it becomes hard to understand how original it used to be.

The narrative devices Dean mentions have stood the test of time better, because they’re harder to reproduce.

I’m trying to picture what a James Ellroy children’s book might be like. Yikes!

On the original Watchmen:
Sorry but the story was parts mediocre or downright goofy. (ending etc.)
Story comes first, then execution.

And as for the Superheroes depicted as something quasi realistic functioning in the real world – I hate that, unless its in MAD. Nothing says fan-fiction more like giving Batman a beer-belly or raping Canary (and she even likes it)

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