Friday, June 22, 2012

Little to Smile about in COMEDIAN #1

It's probably fair to say that among the seven prequel mini-series in the Before Watchmen line, COMEDIAN is one of the two most anxiously awaited (in back of RORSCHACH). It's probably also a fair assessment that among the myriad of talented writers working in comics today, aside from original series creator Alan Moore, Brian Azzarello is the writer from whom most fans want to read a new Comedian tale. His JOKER graphic novel released to tie-in with the Dark Knight film is one of the best one-shots written in the past two decades and his treatment of the titular character is among the best if not actually the best.

So why am I a little let down by COMEDIAN #1?
In a word, expectation.

J.G. Jones' penchant for S&M costumes was part of WANTED's charm, and he would seem to be a natural choice for Edward Blake's alter-ego. But that's not what we get in this first issue. Jones' pencils here are more reminiscent of his D.C. LEGACIES interiors than his superlative MARVEL BOY or FINAL CRISIS work. The colors are very muted, and shadow wins over detail on every page. These are likely stylistic choices utilized to evoke a grey 60s vibe along the lines of John Frankenheimer's films from that era; I don't really endorse this decision and would have been much happier with bright, vibrant ultraviolence. With such a provocative cover, we're led to believe that the restrain Moore showed back in 1987 (ie. not much) is about to be let loose and our hero allowed to go completely medieval. Instead we are treated to a kinder, gentler Comedian with likeable movie star status who is close personal friends with JFK and the whole Kennedy clan. He is, ironically, not very comedic, but urbane and dignified; basically the exact opposite of what we know about him from the source material. Missing is the grim cynicism and signature black humor  –the only hint of which is a quip (an allusion really), about the sexual preferences of J. Edgar Hoover's G-men. Perhaps this is the set-up and we'll get to witness the events that create the bitter nihilist we see in Vietnam with Dr. Manhattan, but since these events take place years after Blake's rape of Silk Spectre I, Sally Jupiter, this revisionist take of Blake as a likeable man's man seems disingenuous. The context of the Kennedy assassination also seems to be at odds with the official Moore & Gibbons cannon, which borders on unforgivable.

I can also see a lot of people taking umbrage with Azzarello's portrayal of Jackie Kennedy, which infers a cattiness and deviousness at odds with just about all existing biographical and historical evidence of her character. The Kennedys of Camelot are by no means sacred cows, but invocation of that legacy really just cheapens the narrative in the same way that comparing any run of the mill politician or dictator to Hitler pretty much guarantees the loss of a sane argument. What Gibbons and Moore might have conveyed in a couple of brief panels is given several pages and it does little more than slow the story down. Rather than evoking an Outer Limits sense of counter-factual history, it comes off more like a Forrest Gump cameo run too long.

And if reviving one of America's darkest hours for cheap drama is merely bad taste, the ham-fisted working-into-the-plot of Moloch the Magician comes off as truly pedestrian. It was completely unnecessary and makes the drunken confession in the original series less dramatic. In short, this new number one is what most WATCHMEN fans were afraid of: it cheapens the original by playing loose with the facts as we know them. It's even more disappointing (no pun intended) because of the talent involved. What could have been a worthy updating of Garth Ennis' UNKNOWN SOLDIER instead has the hollow commerce-driven banality of a badly researched SECRET ORIGINS. I'll continue to read this to see if Azzarello can dig out of the ditch he's made for himself in this first issue, and I'm still excited to see what he and Lee Bermejo have cooked up for RORSCACH, but as it stands, the Before Watchmen line has its first dead on arrival failure with COMEDIAN #1.

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