I finally caught up with the latest release in DC Comics' Before Watchmen line which pairs important writers and artists for new stories concerning the main characters of Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons' WATCHMEN series from 25 years ago.
Of all the new titles, OZYMANDIAS is perhaps the one I looked forward to the least. While Oz is the man behind the curtain of the original WATCHMEN series, he wasn't as badass as Rorschach or The Comedian, and he wasn't as conflicted as Nite Owl or Silk Spectre. Dr. Manhattan is possibly even less interesting than the Oz man (as we already got his complete back story), but I've been very jazzed to see what J. Michael Straczynski can bring to the table via superstar penciler Adam Hughes. Jae Lee is also a tremendous talent whose artwork graces comic books far too infrequently, but Len Wein isn't a name that one expects to see on a list next to Darwyn Cooke, Brian Azzarello and JMS, so my expectations were fairly low for this.
Visually, Jae Lee has delivered the most beautiful interior pages since J. H. Williams III's Batwoman feature in DETECTIVE COMICS a few years back. If Williams channelled Mucha, Lee has resurrected Leyendecker for a fancy art nouveau composition that is really quite breathtaking. Unfortunately, the writing doesn't match.
The narration is straight out of the Bronze age: preachy, obvious and somewhat juvenile. While it's no secret that Adrian Veidt aka Ozymandias has a very high opinion of himself, he would never expose that vanity to anyone –not even himself, so the journal motif exposes a failure by writer Len Wein to capture the nature of the main character. By relying heavily on narration to tell the story, he forces his hero to be the sole revealer of his own tale, and anyone whose seen the various versions of BLADERUNNER with and without narration can attest to the weakness of the narration as a storytelling mechanic. It has been a staple of comic book plotting for decades, but this line of comics was pitched as a collection of cutting edge creators presenting original ideas that would enrich the fictional histories of some of comicdom's most beloved and best protected characters. Instead, OZYMANDIAS #1 is a stale concept wrapped in decades of cliche.
Moore's Ozymandias was not pompous. He was shrewd. He was not the type of guy that tips his hand until the game is over –in fact the character even addresses his own nature at the climax of the original series. At one point in Wein's script, Veidt refers to his own hair fetishistically, which is exactly the kind of comic book villain trait that Moore's presentation steered clear of. I don't mean to be unkind, but Wein is not of the same calibre of Moore and does not have the narrative gift for expressing the hero's vanity without hitting readers over the head with it. Veidt is the most subtle of any of the WATCHMEN cast and here we are given a very heavy handed story with unnecessarily flowery diction, and the whole affair comes off like a Roy Thomas AVENGERS story from 1968 that's been tarted up a bit for second decade, post-millennial circulation. If this had been a PETER CANNON, THUNDERBOLT comic from that era it would've been ground breaking, but in 2012 it's merely old hat. Perhaps worse than being written in the wrong voice in an archaic fashion, it messes with information that we know from Moore's original story. Just as Azzarello exonerated The Comedian from JFK's death, Wein removes Veidt from implication in the deaths of his parents. The one thing that these new titles absolutely should not do is counter-factualize the official cannon, and in five comics there are already two that have done just that.
It would have been far more interesting if Veidt's recollection of his life was staged as a monologue in complete antithesis with the images that accompany the script (like the red carpet speech in SINGIN' IN THE RAIN). That's the angle that someone like Moore might have taken, or Peter Milligan for that matter, who would have been a far better choice for this assignment. It might also have been a little less precious if the entire framework had been an excerpt from Veidt's autobiography instead of this Fantasyland confession which apparently takes place immediately before the climactic events of the original maxi-series. This time signature as a plot mechanic seems forced and doesn't ring true at all.
As an editor, Wein's record is solid (CAMELOT 3000, WATCHMEN, TEEN TITANS, etc.), and as a fan of both SWAMP THING and the X-MEN, I recognize and appreciate his contributions in helping create some of my favorite characters, but outside of his Clayface revival in DETECTIVE COMICS as part of Marshall Rogers' run on the title I can't say that I've ever been as impressed with his writing as I have been with his front office skills.
Alex Ross is helping to relaunch the Peter Cannon character over at Dynamite with writer Steve Darnall and artist Johnathan Lau (and Jae Lee has even provided a cover) so it'll be interesting to see if a reboot of the hero that Moore repurposed as a villain winds up being better than the relaunch of the character it inspired.
I'll let you know in September...