“Before Watchmen: Ozymandias” #1 by Len Wein and Jae Lee is an uneven production with the art trumping the writing. Lee’s art is stunning, pulling off daring page compositions with semicircular or circular panels on almost every page. The layout is surprisingly easy to follow and the circles of the panels echo the additional circular shapes in the backgrounds. Circles are also prominent in the original “Watchmen” and Lee’s repetition of circles visually references all it, as well as emphasizes Ozymandias’ physical perfection and the harmony of Adrian Veidt’s logic, if not his moral system.
A clock-tower face is beautifully rendered in concentric circular silhouette, as are the spider-like filigree outlines of construction vehicles and ironwork, reinforcing the theme of Veidt building his empire. Thoughout the issue, Lee repeats the image of Veidt standing in the exact middle of a panel, reinforcing a sense of order. Yet there is a creeping chaos in the design too. Lee foreshadows Ozymandias’ eventual unleashing of his squid monster by suggestive background details such as a poster, tentacle-like tree branches and roots, and even subtle patterns in wallpaper. There are a hundred small details of composition to appreciate, and June Chung’s colors highlight the dichotomy between the warm sandy Turkey and cool gray New York.
The artwork is daring and harmonious, but too much homage and an incongruous plot mar the writing. In Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ original “Watchmen,” once-vigilante Ozymandias had retired to being just Adrian Veidt, a seemingly toothless celebrity and businessman, but is unmasked as a master puppeteer of epic proportions in the denouement. In “Before Watchmen: Ozymandias” #1, writer Len Wein takes this bizarre and extraordinary character, Ozymandias, and gives him a disappointingly mundane origin story.
Half of the issue is a rehash and fleshing out of previously known details about Ozymandias’ origins from “Watchmen” #11. For Veidt’s childhood and vision quest, Wein either repeats word for word or paraphrases Moore’s “Watchmen” #11 lines, adding in some childhood bullies, street thugs and a scandalous but ultimately pointless bit about Veidt’s sexuality.
Veidt’s reason for taking up the mask at the climax of this issue is particularly hard to believe. It is predicated on his deeply caring about the loss of someone beloved to him. Can Adrian Veidt love? Convincing readers of this would be a difficult feat to pull off, but daring and subversive if successful. Wein does nothing to convince readers that Veidt grieves like a normal human, nor why we should give a fig. Even in grief, we do not see Veidt shed a single tear. If this is a deliberate choice, it serves to keep Ozymandias at an inscrutable, mythic level, but undermines the reader’s ability to care about the character as a human being.
The identification of the reader with both the nascent hero and with the catalyzing tragedy is crucial for this story to have pathos. It’s impossible here, because both Veidt and the person he loses are at best shallow and at worst supremely unlikable. Veidt is god-like, calculated and morally ambiguous. Ozymandias’ personality in “Watchmen” was defined by his utter rationality and ability to manipulate. He is motivated by the desire for greatness and also by a terrifying, strict utilitarianism in which noble ends are justified by any means necessary. Wein keeps this harsh persona wholly intact in Veidt’s childhood, implying he was hatched with this persona and just had to find an idol and motivation. It’s as if a psychopathic child prodigy was slotted into the outlines of a Batman-like origin. Thus, what Wein adds to the Ozymandias mythos manages to be both superfluous and jarring at the same time.