Book Review – Before Watchmen: Ozymandias/Crimson Corsair by Len Wein, Jae Lee, John Higgins and Steve Rude

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Finally I have made it to the last in the collection of Watchmen prequels. If you would like to read my other reviews just click on these links:

Minutemen/Silk Spectre

Comedian/Rorschach 

Nite Owl/Dr. Manhattan

So far I’ve had mixed reactions to the collections and this is perhaps my least anticipated one. It also contains a short story about Dollar Bill as a bonus too, similar to how one about Moloch appeared in the Nite Owl/Dr. Manhattan book.

Ozymandias:

Ozymandias is written by Len Wein with artwork by Jae Lee. Lee’s artwork is spectacular. I really like the painting style he employs. It’s similar to Alex Ross’ work and it gives the story a very smooth and luxurious feel, which is fitting given that it’s a story about Adrian Veidt. In Watchmen he’s probably given the least amount of backstory, probably because it would have given away the twist had the story focused more on him. In this story he’s making an audio biography for the record, so that other people can witness why he did what he did, which is fitting with his ego.

At first his background is very similar to Superman’s. He has a precocious intelligence, actually it probably goes beyond precociousness and his father resorts to telling him that he must try and hide his abilities so that he doesn’t freak the other children out, so the parallels between him and Superman are in no way subtle. But then the story does something interesting; when Dr. Manhattan is introduced Adrian shifts from a Superman comparison to a Lex Luthor one, and I found this to be a clever change of tone. It shows the fine lines that sometimes exist between heroism and villainy.

I enjoyed the sneering condescension that Wein imbues Adrian with as he recollects his encounters with other costumed crimefighters. His meeting with Captain Metropolis had me chuckling and Wein managed to write Ozymandias in a way that maintained his arrogance and unlikability without compromising the interesting aspects of the character and without resorting to cheap tricks to try and get the reader to sympathize with Adrian.

I did think however that a few things were very…easy. For example, the reason he chose his costume is because he had it lying around. There are just a few moments like this where it seems the world’s smartest man doesn’t put much thought into it. Although, I suppose this could be a little nod to how his password in Watchmen was the title of a book that sat nearby the computer, as that was quite lazy too.

I liked the action and the page layout too, there was a double page splash that I thought was fantastic. It was done in a retro style and showed how Adriad took out a group of thugs in a warehouse, using his headband to ricochet off various objects, and the path of the band was visible through a stark white line.

Another thing I enjoyed was how seductive crime fighting is shown to be, and even the world’s smartest man isn’t exempt from temptation. That said, it doesn’t really fill in too many blanks. I think you could infer most of what happened from reading Watchmen. It’s a decent story that is definitely elevated by the artwork, and it is nice to get inside the head of Ozymandias who, as I said above, is given the least amount of attention.

Crimson Corsair:

Crimson Corsair is first written by Len Wein, and then taken over by John Higgins, who also does the artwork.

There was a pirate story in Watchmen so of course there should be a pirate story in Before Watchmen! As Rorschach would say – hurm.

In Watchmen the Tale of the Black Freighter was used as a meta story to highlight the path of Adrian, so I can understand why they used another pirate story and especially why it was paired with the Ozymandias story. However, my first disappointed with it came from the fact that it clearly says it’s written by Len Wein, I think it would have been cleverer had they had another story from inside the universe. Also, as a standalone, it doesn’t help to reinforce the metatextual context.

And, aside from all that, it’s just pretty boring. I liked the artwork, it’s quite murky and gothic and it fits the horror motif but at times it comes across as a Pirates of the Caribbean rip-off. I liked the style of the prose though as it veered into poetry, but the actual substance of the story didn’t do much for me. It was about a pirate who died and had to do a few tasks to save his eternal soul. The parallels with Ozymandias were sometimes overt, like when the main character says that he did what he did for the greater good, but sometimes they were lost in the story. I think it’s hard to write a story that’s supposed to bring out symbolism in another story while still standing by itself. I felt the conclusion was unclear and there were parts that I frankly just didn’t understand. Another small annoyance is that the chapters were about two pages long, so sometimes there were unnecessary recaps.

There were a couple of nice touches though, in one panel a victim is shown to have a similar fate to Rorschach. Also, there’s a part where the protagonist gets a mask of skin draped over his face and this is similar to the masks that the vigilantes wear.

The problem with this story is that it doesn’t feel attached to the Watchmen universe. It seems to bring out another aspect of Ozymandias’ story, but if that was the case then it shouldn’t have been a standalone piece. However, it does go beyond Watchmen and this is something that I’ll talk a bit more with Dollar Bill in a moment, but it deals with the lasting effects of Ozymandias’ actions on his own soul. Again, I’m not sure it’s something we really needed a whole story about but there it is.

Dollar Bill:

Dollar Bill is written by Len Wein and drawn by Steve Rude.

I was surprised that Moloch got his own bonus story and I’m even more surprised that Dollar Bill got one. In Watchmen he was mostly a punchline, gunned down after his cape got caught in a revolving door long before Edna Mode’s warning in The Incredibles.

Now, if you read my other reviews you’ll know that I loved Minutemen but this one, I think it still serves to highlight Adrian’s character more than anything. It’s a story where Dollar Bill narrates his life and how he got into the crime fighting business, and is a possible indictment of current culture where superheroes are whored out by businessmen, in fact I’m wondering if it was a subtle jab by Wein at DC Comics for doing the whole Before Watchmen line.

Anyway, Dollar Bill was an all-star athlete who tries his hand at acting after an injury but the only job he can get is as Dollar Bill. I actually did like the progression of his character as he learned to be a hero and actually put himself on the line, although it’s such a short story that it’s hard for his death to resonate. I also think it’s a bit disingenuous to have a character narrate their life story after they’ve died, and it struck me that all three of these stories are narrated by the protagonists.

But again, the final moral is one of legacy, and the fact that even though he may not have thought he was a true hero people will remember him as one, and that’s what mattered. I do like the idea of legacy in comics but it’s clear by the time of Watchmen that people don’t remember the Minutemen fondly. As far as it plays into Ozymandias’ character, well, to me there are two ways to interpret the ending of Watchmen. Either you feel that Rorschach’s journal will be published and everyone will know what Ozymandias did, leaving his legacy as one where everyone knows he’s a villain or that since it’s published in the New Frontiersman that barely anyone will read it and even less people will believe it, so Adrian’s legacy will be intact. I suppose Crimson Corsair could be the way Adrian sees himself and Dollar Bill is how the world will see Adrian.

So there is stuff to discuss, although I’m not sure how much is contained within the narrative and how much I’m just looking into things, but it’s not really anything we couldn’t have thought about after reading Watchmen. So I can’t really recommend this as a must-buy. It’s not horrible, but I’m struggling to see what it adds to the original text.

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3 thoughts on “Book Review – Before Watchmen: Ozymandias/Crimson Corsair by Len Wein, Jae Lee, John Higgins and Steve Rude

  1. *sigh* When books like these come out i’m always hesitant to read them since i don’t know what they’ll add to the original source material and in this case it seems like it didn’t add much. Hopefully yout next read is better

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