Book Review – Before Watchmen: Nite Owl/Dr. Manhattan by J. Michael Straczynski & Others

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I put and others because otherwise the title would have been too long. Lots of people worked on these. Andy Kubert did the art for Nite Owl, Adam Hughes for Dr. Manhattan and Eduardo for Moloch. Yes, this volume contains a bonus story focusing on Moloch the Mystic. This is the third volume in the Before Watchmen series. So far I enjoyed Minutemen/Silk Spectre but I didn’t like Comedian/Rorschach  at all. Let’s see what I thought of these.

Nite Owl:

We start of with Dan Dreiberg. After the disappointment that was his own featured story, I’m also pleased to say that Rorschach makes a welcome return. The partnership between the two vigilantes was a part of Watchmen that was one of the more obvious routes to be expanded upon, but this story also shows Dan’s relationship with Hollis Mason too, as well as touching on a few scenes from Watchmen.

I think this one builds on the original in a worthwhile way. We see why Dan became obsessed with Nite Owl and crime fighting in general, and also a source for his costumed fetish. A great deal of this story deals with the sexual element, especially since the main criminal plot is about prostitutes that are being killed. Unfortunately this also leads to some misogynist dialogue and the Twilight Lady is borne from the worst excesses of the comic book psyche. It’s interesting really, because where Watchmen was intended to be a critique of superheroes this reads like a celebration of them. It touches on the nature of the superheroic legacy and also on the idea of masks and how some people use them to hide while others use them to reveal themselves. This is something I appreciate as it attempts to make some commentary on the tropes of the genre.

I loved the interactions between Nite Owl and Rorschach, and as a point we also get a glimpse into Walter’s childhood and this serves to flesh out his character much better than anything in his solo volume. Some of the dialogue is a bit too cute for its own good, but there are plenty of references to Watchmen including an origin for an object that played into the story well. The artwork was serviceable but nothing stellar. Overall I’d put this at about the same level as Silk Spectre. I enjoyed it but I can’t say that anything was completely mind-blowing about it. It’s definitely better than Comedian/Rorschach though, and the latter is served much better in here.

Dr. Manhattan:

Okay, now this is one that I enjoyed about as much as Minutemen. I LOVED this volume. It tells a non-linear story and plays with the layout of the pages in a way that feels like a spiritual successor to Watchmen. I wish more of the books did this because for one page you have to rotate the book completely to read everything, and then for a number of pages you actually have to turn the book upside down to read it properly. It’s a very clever way to play with the medium and it’s fitting that it was in the Dr. Manhattan volume, although I wish the other volumes had been as daring and imaginative with their layouts.

The story focuses on Dr. Manhattan trying to figure out why he existed and he follows the path of his life, examining all the decisions that led to the accident that created him. This leads to a split narrative where he looks at a number of choices and the story depicts both on pages that mirror each other. I really enjoyed this way of telling the story. The artwork was amazing and credit here to Adam Hughes because out of the ones I have read so far he’s the one that has most closely captured the style of Dave Gibbons, yet it’s still distinctive.

It’s surprising really since out of all the characters Dr. Manhattan is the one that would least be in need of a prequel, after all, given his nature we’re taken through much of his life in Watchmen itself. But here we get to see the different possibilities of his life and it all ties together wonderfully, especially as we see the beginnings of his partnership with Adrian. This and Minutemen have been the highlight so far. Oh, and there are a couple of fun little nods as well, like comic books drawn by Max Shea. Great addition.

Moloch:

Now here’s one that I didn’t expect to get a prequel. I mean, he was basically the stand-in for all the villains in Watchmen and ultimately I don’t think a story about him was really necessary. The attempt to give him a tragic background was a misguided effort I feel, although perhaps the parallels between his parents and that of the other characters were there to show there’s a fine line between deciding to be a hero or a villain, but if that was the case it should have been made clearer and explored in more depth.

It’s a decent story and the art is okay but it’s not something that I was clamouring for and after reading it I can’t say that it’s amazing. It expands on some things in Watchmen but not in any way that provides with something that we couldn’t otherwise infer. It’s quite cute the way the magician is fooled by the biggest trick on the world, and also how Moloch is finally trying to do penance for his crimes, but in doing so he helps bring about Adrian’s doomsday scenario, but cute is all it is. It’s only a short piece though so it reads and feels like a bonus. I can’t critique it too heavily because it wasn’t something I was expecting and it’s not what I bought the book for.

Overall I think this volume is a pretty good addition to the Watchmen universe and I’d put it on a par with Minutemen/Silk Spectre. For me, Minutemen is still the best story but Dr. Manhattan pushes it close, mostly with the way it plays with the page layouts. I’d recommend picking this collection up.

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