Monday, August 20, 2012

Passing the Rorschach Test

Without a doubt, the most highly anticipated title in the Before Watchmen line has been RORSCHACH. The narrator of the original series has long been the most beloved character and this new prequel is undoubtedly the one that fans critical of the relaunch feared most would be mishandled.

Fortunately for Brian Azzarello, Alan Moore invested more time in the backstory for Rorschach than he did in the Comedian. Fans of the original WATCHMEN have a clear picture of what he is all about because his origin from childhood to crime fighter is well documented in the original series. It's effortless to pick up the beat of his prosthelytizing monologues, and his disdain for corruption is unforced and amenable; in other words he's easy to identify with. Rorschach may be crazy, but like his cinematic predecessor Travis Bickle, his intentions are good and he, himself, is a victim of society. With such a well established personality (or lack thereof), and with such a high percentage of the original source material dedicated to him, success should come relatively simply to a writer worth his salt.

If I had my choice of any living comic book team to write and illustrate this comic I would have picked the same duo that DC did: Brian Azzarello and Lee Bermejo. And you'll all be happy to hear that they didn't disappoint.

The JOKER graphic novel is one of the few examples of post-WATCHMEN sequential literature that can be either recommended or discovered independently and be completely enjoyed regardless. There are books by Grant Morrison, Neil Gaiman, and a few others working within the superhero cannon that also succeed at this but none of them star the bad guy, and most of the issues that are dedicated to villains try to humanize them with sympathetic explanations about what made them monsters. Azzarello chose to forego that route completely and served up a day in the life of an utterly unpredictable lunatic. One minute he's funny and the next minute he's deadly and twice as frightening because of it. Bermejo painted a portrait of a true psychopath, and within panels captures a subtle shift in body language and even pupil dilation to support the explosion of violence that commonly bridges the Joker's wavering moods. This is the team you want when telling the tale of the most violent costumed vigilante this side of BADGER (a schizophrenic, indie comics hero whose popularity once outshined Wolverine's).
Bermejo's original art from Rorschach #1

Since Moore already told us how the red-headed Walter Kovacs became Rorschach, the masked scourge of the underworld, Azzarello is spared having to repeat it. He has chosen (thus far) to detail a single case file well into the vigilante's career –from the late 70s if the look of Bermejo's New York City is any indication. Like Moore before him, Azzarello has chosen to pull from Martin Scorcese's Taxi Driver to present the nasty and scary 42nd Street of the post-Vietnam era that became synonymous with crime, vice and pornography for a generation of New Yorkers and tourists along the great, white way. In the quarter-century that has passed since the original series first saw print, the level of violence and obscenity allowed in mainstream comic books has increased exponentially, and thus are we presented with a more extreme version of the character.

Even though it carried a recommendation "For Mature Readers," original series artist Dave Gibbons was forced to work within the framework of the accepted norm, obligating a subtlety that helped his work connect with academics and even conservatives who were critical of "comic book violence." Lee Bermejo is not so restrained, and there is nothing comic about his violence. When the aforementioned Kovacs shows up in public after his masked alter-ego receives a savage beating from some street thugs, he's not just worse for wear: he's f**ked up –a credit to Bermejo's detailed pencils.

The heightened violence and stronger language aside, Azzarello has remained faithful to the character comic fans know. Maybe this was motivated by fear, or maybe he's just having fun with a character he never dreamed he'd be allowed to write. Then again, they just might have found the perfect pairing of writer and artist for this particular project. It is possible that WATCHMEN was one of the titles that made Azzarello want to write comic books in the first place. One can draw a series of comparisons between the best and worst of Moore's heroic fiction and the best and worst of Azzarello's, and while they are each their own man, if you are a fan of one you will likely be a fan of the other. Azzarello (like Moore) is at his best telling dark stories about those who rage against the dying of the light; a sort of dystopian poet. And Moore (like Azzarello) experienced his biggest failures when working with other people's material that hadn't been completely mapped via years of pop-culture establishment (SPAWN, WildC.A.T.S., SUPREME).

In the 25 years that have passed since Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons buried Edward Blake, many subsequent writers have injected elements of The Comedian into mainstream heroes like The Punisher, Daredevil, Nick Fury and even Captain America (not to mention pretty much every Image-published title of the 1990s). In an attempt to make the character something special again, Brian may have chosen to write a larger than life character worthy of The Comedian's legend but unmindful of his published history. It's got to be a challenge tackling something that nobody wants to see succeed, and I don't envy the task –especially when he can write (and has written) any number of books that the fans will not only love, but fawn over. All of those involved in the Before Watchmen line have exhibited great courage, but the failures have outnumbered the successes. Azzarello's COMEDIAN had a shaky start, and seems to be recovering, but thus far I'd list it among the failures. With RORSCHACH #1, DC and Azzarello can add one more check to the success column.

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