“Anybody could have done it.” (The Last War in Albion Book Two Part Fourteen: Before Watchmen: Rorschach)
Previously in The Last War in Albion: Perhaps surprisingly given his pedigree as a creator, Brian Azzarello’s two contributions to the Before Watchmen line were largely disappointing and unoriginal. The first, Before Watchmen: The Comedian, frames the charater largely in terms of the Kennedies, essentially opening with the assassination of JFK and closing with that of RFK, committed by the Comedian to cover a war crime he committed in Vietnam.
|Figure 895: The Comedian assassinates Bobby Kennedy. (Written by Brian Azzarello, art by J.G. Jones, from Before Watchmen: The Comedian #6, 2012)|
It would be overstating the case to say that Azzarello simply allies the Comedian with Kennedy-style New Frontier liberalism: the ending makes that a hard sell, after all. Rather, it’s that Azzarello uses the two Kennedy assassinations as the poles in a fairly traditional account of the decline of 1960s leftist idealism, from JFK’s death as a tragedy that stuns the Comedian to RFK’s death as the Comedian’s own doing, with the engine of that transition being the Vietnam War. Azzarello does not do anything so crass as suggest that the Kennedys are some sort of unalloyed good, of course. He portrays them in line with the historical reality of their considerable corruption. But their corruption is ultimately paralleled with the Comedian’s; he even refers to Robert Kennedy as a “way more effective” crime fighter than he is at one point. They’re all of a type; the sort of morally compromised hard men who flooded superhero comics in the wake of The Dark Knight Returns, and that Watchmen is so often misunderstood as being about. This is even echoed in the art; J.G. Jones, doing his first significant interior work since his awkward exit from Final Crisis three years earlier, imbued the series with what Azzarello called a “masculine realism,” framing this sense of masculinity as central to the Comedian’s character.
This is, to say the least, a bizarre take on the Comedian. Over and over again Watchmen stresses that the Comedian is essentially a nihilist; he understood the same existential darkness that Rorschach did, and, as Rorschach puts it, “chose to become a reflection, a parody” of the fundamentally dysfunctional and broken world. Unlike Rorschach’s absolute belief in justice, however, the Comedian was fundamentally amoral, ultimately driven only by a desire to be tougher than the world (hence his ultimate breakdown when he realizes that Ozymandias’s pragmatic nihilism vastly exceeds his own). Simply put, he’s almost fundamentally impossible to use as the symbol of any sort of idealism, even one in terminal decline. Azzarello’s character, who sulks that “the one thing – the abso-fucking-one thing that no one ever got about me is that I am a patriot” is, in this regard, virtually unrecognizable. As for the idea that the Comedian represents some sort of masculine ideal at any point in his career, it’s difficult to see where this comes from within Watchmen, where one of the first things established about the character is the fact that he raped the Silk Spectre.
|Figure 896: The Comedian hallucinates the Kennedy brothers while dropping acid in Vietnam. (Written by Brian Azzarello, art by J.G. Jones, from Before Watchmen: The Comedian #4, 2012)|
Indeed, it’s really this issue over which the Comedian’s characterization falls apart. Azzarello’s story ultimately has his experiences in Vietnam (and particularly his experiences taking LSD in Vietnam) serve as, if not a loss of innocence (it’s not as though he has much at the start, after all), at least a decisive final step in the character’s downfall. But in Watchmen there’s no sense of this. The Comedian is already a violent rapist in the 1940s, and his view of the world as a joke is already well in place – that’s the entire point of his taunting response after Hooded Justice beats him, “this is what you like, huh? This is what gets you hot.” His story is not one of becoming or self-actualization; the entire point, in many ways, is that he’s the one character who never really changed from the 1940s to the 1980s, which is why his death works as the instigating event for the narrative. To add a moment akin to Rorschach’s investigation of the Blaire Roche kidnapping in which the Comedian crosses some fundamental line by killing RFK just doesn’t fit into his narrative, and, moreover, actively undermines it.
That Before Watchmen: The Comedian is lackluster, however, is perhaps unsurprising. It was, after all, very much the second choice series for Azzarello, and its six-issue length is a fairly fundamental and irreparable flaw. What is perhaps more surprising is that, for all of its flaws, it’s still wildly better than the series that got Azzarello on board the project in the first place, namely Before Watchmen: Rorschach. Indeed, it is in some ways difficult to fully comprehend exactly how the book went as badly as it did. With the other three more or less completely meritless Before Watchmen titles it is at least straightforward to understand all of the steps involved in creating awful comics. But Before Watchmen: Rorschach is bad in genuinely surprising and unexpected ways.
|Figure 897: Lee Bermejo’s lurid depiction of late 70s New York City. (Written by Brian Azzarello, from Before Watchmen: Rorschach #1, 2012)|
To be fair, the book does share the basic virtue that most of the Before Watchmen titles do: it’s very pretty. Actually, that’s the wrong word for it. Lee Bermejo is an intensely stylized artist who gives everything he works on a sense of moody and detailed grotesquery. Catering to this style, Azzarello opts to set the bulk of the action in 1977 New York City, remarking, with droll understatement, that “New York back then was a very different place than it is now.” And with Bermejo on art, Before Watchmen: Rorschach leans into that, presenting a lurid and stylized noir city that’s just a seedy underbelly with some neon lights smeared on top. But as satisfying as Bermejo’s designs are, they run against a fundamental limit that Before Watchmen: Rorschach cannot really find a way around. Simply put, there’s nothing Bermejo can do that conveys the sense of a sick and rotting city of excess as well as the simple staccato of “dog carcass in alley this morning, tire tread on burst stomach.”
This speaks to a larger problem, exemplified by Before Watchmen: Rorschach, but shared in many ways by all of the Before Watchmen books. Azzarello and Bermejo are both creators who are very good at a particular sort of noir. The gaudy excess of late seventies New York is something they’re good at portraying. But the result is a book that is a sort of conceptual monochrome. Every note it hits is about the squalid, awful excess of New York City. Before Watchmen: Rorschach is, in effect, wall-to-wall dog carcasses. Whereas Moore’s dog carcass is a detail of dialogue in a panel concerned with the strange juxtaposition of a smiley face in a gutter full of blood, contextualized in a mundane pan upwards of a street scene rendered not in grotesque detail but in the clean and cartoonish linework of Dave Gibbons and a John Higgins color palate mainly of, in the first page at least, purples and pinks. Rorschach’s journal is littered with some of the greatest noir beats in the history of comics, yes, but they’re individual beats in a much more complex whole. And it is the presence of all of these contrasting tones that makes Moore’s noir beats stand out so well. Azzarello and Bermejo cannot craft better noir beats than Moore – nobody, after all, can craft better noir beats than Rorschach’s journal – and the ones they do craft don’t get to stand out because those beats are all there are to the comic. Similarly, although Azzarello and Jones create some pretty good Vietnam War beats in Before Watchmen: The Comedian, the overall effect is still a comic that just endlessly reiterates a point Moore had already compellingly sold in the single image of the Comedian angrily gunning down his pregnant lover. It is perhaps pushing the argument too far to suggest that Before Watchmen would have been improved by consistently pairing writers and artists in less obvious ways, but it’s hard not to think that, for instance, a Cooke/Conner Before Watchmen: Rorschach would have at least had the considerable virtue of being at all surprising, instead of just endlessly reiterating the most obvious take on the material.
|Figure 898: The clouds over New York City take the shape of Rorschach’s mask as Azzarello does a poor imitation of Rorschach’s prose style. (Art by Lee Bermejo, from Before Watchmen: Rorschach #1, 2012)|
But the problem of comparison is perhaps harshest for Before Watchmen: Rorschach. The decision to retain the convention of narration from Rorschach’s journal was ultimately unavoidable; Rorschach without his journal to narrate would be like Rorschach without gratuitous violence, after all. And of course that’s a hard act to follow. But even in light of the scale of the task, it’s hard to find much to praise in Azzarello’s attempt. The opening narration, over a splash page of the New York City skyline with clouds evoking Rorschach’s mask, reads: “I hate this place. Have since I was a child. My mother (may she rot in hell) called it the greatest city on Earth. One New Year’s eve she took me out on the fire escape and told me that I was lucky to live here. And that I owed her that. It was one of the few times she ever smiled at me. Then she was called back to bed, by one of my uncles. I stayed outside in my pajamas, holding onto the cold metal rail. The snow fell. My fingers turned blue, and my toes purple, then black, as the sun rose. She wasn’t smiling in the emergency room. She was spitting. Cursing. Asking me why do you always have to ruin everything? What made you this way? I looked her in the eye, and said, ‘you did.’ You did. And do. All of you. Walking these streets, avoiding eye contact, heads down, in perfect pose for the blade of the executioner that stalks you. Well, he’s just behind you. And crossing the street. And around every corner. You all fear me. But I am not him. No, I am the lonely man who stalks the executioner.”
This is, simply put, awful. It is almost completely devoid of any of the weird and visionary images that make up Rorschach’s narration in Watchmen. There are no dead dogs, scabbing drains, foaming sex and murder, or lecher droppings. Not even a lowly abattoir full of retarded children or some Coke in green glass bottles. The most interesting image is the changing colors of young Walter’s frostbite, which is not a lot to go on. The jittery, paranoid meter of Moore’s work is also gone – instead of the shifts back and forth between iambic and trochaic patterns there’s just a bland and rhythmless meander through the words. But moreover it’s just not interesting. As the monologue goes on to cover the opening images of Bermejo’s city gone mad there is nothing in the text that actually evokes the tone or feel of the city.
|Figure 899: A more reasonable option for New York City showing Rorschach its true face in 1977. (Written by Alan Moore, art by Dave Gibbons and John Higgins, from Watchmen #2, 1986)|
Indeed, at first glance, especially given that the text is presented as typewritten (complete with some xed-over words), as opposed to the handwritten journal of Watchmen, one might simply assume that the series is set before the events of the Blaire Roche kidnapping and his resultant internal transformation. Certainly it does not sound like the thought of someone who has felt the map of a violent new continent unfold in the bloodstain on his chest as he watched the sky through smoking human fat. Except that the journal is dated 1977, two years after the date given for the Roche kidnapping. Even stranger, the big event in Watchmen that takes place in 1977 – the riots caused by the police strike and the passage of the Keene act – are unmentioned. Instead the comic depicts the July 1977 blackout in New York City. Bewilderingly, in a postscript five years after the main events of the series (and seemingly written in longhand instead of being typed), Rorschach refers to the blackout as when “the city showed its true face,” which, in the context of 1977 in Watchmen, is virtually unfathomable – surely the Keene riots depicted in Watchmen #2 would, from the perspective of five years on, be the moment Rorschach would look back on, as opposed to a blackout during which he got beat up a lot by a thinly defined criminal who spouts social Darwinist cliches like it’s not done going out of style yet. Similarly, Rorschach’s assertion that his handling of this criminal was his “last mistake” is a strange one that fits awkwardly with the decision to set the story after the events of 1975; put simply, Rorschach seems unlikely to classify anything following his rebirth that way.
This “five years later” postscript also highlights another bizarre aspect of Before Watchmen: Rorschach. It exists to resolve a subplot that runs through all four issues of a serial killer called the Bard who carves messages on his victims’ bodies. This plot does not actually directly connect with the main plot at all; the only intersection is that the Bard’s last victim is a waitress Rorschach asked on a date (another moment that’s difficult to imagine the Rorschach of Watchmen doing). But nevertheless, the book ends with its resolution, as Rorschach hunts down the Bard and kills him, following his acquittal. Here too the timeline is at best inscrutable; Rorschach says that the Bard was “behind bars for nearly three years,” and yet kills him five years later with no hint of an explanation as to why he let a violent serial killer walk around for two years after his acquittal.
|Figure 900: The crass sexualization of the Bard’s murders is established at the start of the book. (Written by Brian Azzarello, art by Lee Bermejo, from Before Watchmen: Rorschach #1, 2012)|
But the basic sloppiness of this is only the most immediately visible problem with the plotline. The larger issue comes in thinking about the general idea of a serial killer in New York City in July of 1977, mainly because there was already a prominent one there: the Son of Sam, whose year-long spree was coming to its conclusion around then. Indeed, the spectre of the Son of Sam killings is part of what made the 1977 blackout such a famously unsettling night for the city. Moreover, Moore has noted that the Son of Sam letter was one of the major inspirations for Rorschach’s prose style. And yet instead of engaging with that, Azzarello creates a tawdry (and more to the point gratuitously sexualized – the series opens with two pages of the Bard carving words into the flesh of his latest victim, who, unlike David Berkowitz’s victims, were all women) knockoff. This is bizarre, especially in light of his decision to abandon Watchmen’s own version of 1977 unrest in New York in favor of the real-world blackout. Put simply, having Rorschach respond to one of his real-world influences over the backdrop of one of the most iconic events in Watchmen would have been a lot more interesting than having Rorschach respond to a crass substitute over the backdrop of a power outage.
And yet Before Watchmen: Rorschach doesn’t. Given its seeming disinterest in actually relating to the timeline in Watchmen reflecting the character of Rorschach on any significant level, or, for that matter, providing a particularly coherent plot over its four issues this is, perhaps, unsurprising. Certainly nobody would mistake Before Watchmen: Rorschach as an ambitious comic. And as noted, despite the skill of both Azzarello and Bermejo, this was really baked into its conception, which consisted of putting two creators who are known for working in the single most obvious style for a Rorschach-centered comic on the book. And yet perhaps the really shocking thing is that Before Watchmen: Rorschach was far from the worst book of the set.} [continued]