The Before Watchmen line continued yesterday with NITE OWL #1, the fourth new title released in this prequel line of comic books based on Alan Moore's WATCHMEN characters. With a new title streeting every week, that's no surprise in and of itself, but this week a new Moore comic also arrived; namely, THE LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN: CENTURY 2009. And thus was the stage set for the most public (if not exciting) geekdom Beef battle since, well... the last time Lord Alan got something published, I guess.
The verdict? Alan Moore wins this round hands down.
If Brian Azzarello's THE COMEDIAN #1 failed for taking too many liberties with the source material as it is understood by the fans, J. Michael Straczynski falls just a bit short for rehashing too much of what we already know and mixing it with original material that just isn't very exciting either on its own or in juxtaposition with the history as it's represented. His script is by no means bad, but it's not as exciting as either of Darwyn Cooke's books (MINUTEMEN and SILK SPECTRE) have been thus far. Rorschach fans will be delighted to find him in great support in the second half of the origin story, but I found the multitude of Hurms to be tiring and betrayed a use of the familiar to make up for a basic lack of understanding of the character.
Nite Owl was based on Charlton Comics' Blue Beetle, and JMS has really tapped into that for his portrayal of Daniel Dreiberg as Night Owl II. He is an affable, comical hero, which seems slightly at odds with his adolescent home life, but that would seem to fall completely in step with the personalities of stand-up comics of that era (the 60s), many of whom used comedy as a relief for the harsh circumstances of poverty or abuse. His partnership with the deadpan Rorschach makes for an interesting odd couple, and fans will want to see as much of this team-up as the space allows, which could get in the way of the narrative in a limited series.
I've said this before and I'll say it again: I feel that the page count is a serious handicap in this new line when compared with the original series. Eight less pages is a huge, possibly insurmountable deficit.
The original pitch behind this new line was in presenting the origins that we never got to see in WATCHMEN, but so far (with the exception of SILK SPECTRE #1) we are being rushed through those stories. So anyone expecting NITE OWL YEAR ONE will be sorely disappointed. Also, like with COMEDIAN #1, the cover art and the interior art is so different, that it's easy to feel baited and switched. Andy Kubert's cover is text book perfect comic art, but the interiors look much more like his dad's SGT. ROCK work. There's nothing wrong with that necessarily, but war books and superhero books have different looks and the interior pencils have a sort of schizophrenia as a result. This book doesn't feel very heroic, and not in a post-modern sense –which might have been a good thing. Still, it's got a solid backbone of readability that Straczynski brings to most of his work. His lack of feel for the Rorschach character might be a strength; by not allowing a secondary character to chew his way through the scenery, he positions Night Owl to shine. I'm looking forward to seeing what the specific plot of this book will be, and I hope it enriches the legacy of the original series.
Moore is in top form as wordsmith and conjurer. He has a gift with language and dialogue that knows few peers, and the meta-narrative employed here is presented unconfusingly and almost poignantly. It's refreshing to see an author rework themes from previous works to better effect, and to do so within the framework of a story that utilizes borrowed characters and confront our current reality in that mix is a work of genius. Where I found FROM HELL to be a beautiful but incomprehensible mess, I find CENTURY to be a clever, well-constructed ruse. If it is hampered by anything, it is the inherent pessimism of the author's world view, but Moore doesn't really do "happy."
So if there really was a competition, Moore & O'Neill outpunched Straczynski and the Kuberts, and they landed those blows with more power, but there are no losers in this fight. The fans least of all.