Every week, Chad Nevett and I will be reviewing an issue of Before Watchmen through a discussion of each issue. We continue with Moloch #1, written by J. Michael Straczynski, drawn by Eduardo Risso and colored by Trish Mulvihill .
Brian Cronin: I'll be honest, all throughout the issue, I couldn't help but think of Allen Ginsburg's classic poem, Howl (specifically Part II). My roommate in college was a big Ginsburg fan and he had this recording of Ginsburg reading the poem that we used to listen to frequently because Ginsburg really gets into it. It's quite entertaining.
Moloch in whom I sit lonely! Moloch in whom I dream Angels! Crazy in Moloch! Cocksucker in Moloch! Lacklove and manless in Moloch! Moloch who entered my soul early! Moloch in whom I am a consciousness without a body! Moloch who frightened me out of my natural ecstasy! Moloch whom I abandon! Wake up in Moloch! Light streaming out of the sky!
Anyhow, all through the issue, I kept doing Allen Ginsburg impressions in my mind. Constant Allen Ginsburg impressions in your brain are pretty distracting when you're reading a comic book.
That said, this was a decent comic book that continues the Before Watchmen trend of having amazing artwork. Eduardo Risso and Trish Mulvihill are one of the best art teams in the whole business. Can you ever recall an issue by the pair that WASN'T really cool looking? I am always amazed at just how well Mulvihill's colors match Risso's drawings. It is like the two share a brain frequency. Risso, meanwhile, has that devastating one-two punch of fascinatingly designed characters and impeccable panel design.
Risso's such a great storyteller. Who do you think is the best storyteller of all of the Before Watchmen artists? I think it comes down to a Final Four of Cooke, Conner, Lee and Risso. Those four are all absolutely brilliant. Risso probably doesn't win the top prize, but it is close. I think I'll go with...Cooke. Who would your choice be?
(That said, as great as Risso was in this issue, I thought he did an odd job with the scene where Moloch bursts in on the magician having sex with the magician's assistant. The perspective was really weird. It didn't even look like they were having sex)
As for the story, Straczynski tells a compelling tale of a guy treated like a monster his whole life so he figured he'd just embrace the role he was literally born to play. His progression through life was interesting, as was the realization he had that we also saw Len Wein show us in Ozymandias, which is that Doctor Manhattan truly was a game-changer for everyone. I liked the cliffhanger of Ozymandias and Moloch meeting up. We actually get to see them work together all ready! I guess we learned the only way you can get a Before Watchmen story to actually move along at faster than a glacial pace - have it be just two issues long!
An interesting problem I had while reading the book was that I sort of saw Moloch in the original Watchmen comics as being a bit of a sad sack villain, you know, sort of the perennial punching bag who was fought because he was the only guy willing to BE a super-villain. I thought he was almost harmless, so his sadistic violence in this issue shook me a bit at first, but then I went back and re-read his scenes in Watchmen and they DO mention him doing stuff like bombing the Stock Exchange. That's pretty fucked up, so I guess this is not out of character.
In retrospect, the story Straczynski is telling here is very similar to his Nite-Owl origin story. You know, a lot of over-the-top stuff with heavy symbolism everywhere, but while I thought it seemed out of place in the Nite-Owl issue, I thought it worked for Moloch. I think it is because Moloch IS over-the-top. The dude is a monster-looking dude named Moloch the Magnificent! He's the only self-identified super-villain of the Watchmen universe! So I think that the storytelling style worked for this story.
Chad Nevett: I'll echo the sentiments about the art. Gorgeous stuff. I was put off a bit by the over-the-top depicition of Moloch as an almost goblin creature. That clearly comes from the writing, which plays up the idea of him as a freak... which I never got from Watchmen. He had weird ears and wasn't the best looking guy in the world -- but who was in that book? Was he always meant to be so physically repulsive? I know that that doesn't really matter, but, if there is the change, why? Is it necessary to provide a hook for the character?
My big complaints are the standard Straczynski complaints. It's almost not fair, because he keeps doing the same things and it's repetitive to bring them up every single time. What I found interesting was comparing this to the usual Risso/Azzarello collaborations and how much Azzarello seems to trust Risso. Azzarello can be a verbose writer and loves the English language, but he's also much more judicious in his use of dialogue and narration, especially with Risso. He's not afraid to pull back quite a bit and let Risso do the heavy lifting. That wasn't the case here. I mean, Risso wound up doing the heavy lifting by default, but that's more because he HAD to, not because the comic was designed that way. I wonder if Straczynski knew who the artist would be... and if that actually mattered to how he wrote this issue.
BC: No, you're right, Moloch was never depicted as being this hideous in the original books. Risso is so good at drawing creepy stuff that I think that the change worked, but yeah, it is fair to say that if the argument for his character development was based on him looking like a total monster then that is new to the character.
What are your particular problems with Straczynski's handling of Moloch? The over-the-top stuff? The lack of subtlety?
Also, answer my best storyteller question, damn you!!!
CN: Lack of subtlety. More than that, just how... obvious the entire thing is. The lack of originality. The lack of subtlety about how it's lacking in originality? Yeah, that describes it best. This is a terribly wellworn plot, one that follows a fairly specific path and seems to glorify in the fact that it does. It's very much a retread of Ozymandias's origin story right down to Dr. Manhattan being the turning point and I have no doubt that that's meant to be purposeful given how Moloch is used by Ozymandias. But, it's the sort of plot that, while reading the issue, I kept waiting for something to surprise me in any small way and there simply isn't anything. I mean, aside from Moloch the Troll.
Based on their work on these books, I'd pick Amanda Conner as the top storyteller. Her work on the Silk Spectre mini has been amazing. So much of how we view/relate to Laurie comes from the way Conner draws her, especially in panel-to-panel sequences. Cooke is a close second.
This two-issue mini was introduced as a schedule-filler, partly because of the impact of Joe Kubert's death on the project and, partly, I assume, because other books were slipping from their schedule. Does it feel necessary? Does it transcend its 'filler' nature for you? And, would you rank it above any of the other Before Watchmen series so far (at least in comparing first issues)?
BC: It definitely lacked originality, and when you bring it up, while I was giving Straczynski a pass in the whole "how many different ways could you really play this thing?" sort of way, I realize that that likely IS a bit too forgiving on my part, because while yeah, I can't think of many ways to do Moloch's story other than this, a professional comic book writer presumably could.
And speaking to the filler nature of this series, that likely is what we are seeing. Since it is, indeed, a filler series, Straczynski is not exactly going to spend time breaking new ground with it, ya know?
As for how it compares to the other titles, I think it compares pretty well to Straczynski's other two books. They both seem on the filler side of things, as well. Especially his Doctor Manhattan tale, which currently seems to be "just let Adam Hughes draw cool parallel realities for two issues."
CN: Dr. Manhattan is just sort of dull. Nite Owl is actively bad. This one seems like a cross between the two. The same storytelling approach of Nite Owl with the same amount of interesting things as Dr. Manhattan. The worst of both worlds!
I think we can definitively say that Straczynski is simply a bad comics writer. Say what you will about this projects, but Azzarello, Cooke, and Conner are all doing much better work. Even Len Wein is blowing JMS out of the water and I'm not the biggest fan of his writing style on Ozymandias.
Reading Moloch #1, it's great art and writing that makes me wish they'd somehow convinced Azzarello to do it.
BC: Yeah, like I noted before, the approach here is VERY similar to that of Nite Owl, but I think it works better here. So I'd definitely put this book above Nite Owl, while it is a toss-up for me whether it is better than Doctor Manhattan. That second issue of Doctor Manhattan really irked me in how it just repeated the same ideas as #1 for an entire second issue ad nauseum. But okay, I guess Doctor Manhattan probably still edges out Moloch, quality-wise. That first Doctor Manhattan issue was pretty good.
As for Straczynski being just a plain ol' bad comic book writer, I wouldn't go that far. Has he done a poor job on Before Watchmen? Certainly. But I have read enough good comic books from him that I think he definitely does have some real strong comic book writing talent. We just haven't seen a lot of it between Before Watchmen, Grounded, Odyssey and the non-JRjr issues of Amazing Spider-Man. Actually, his first Earth One Superman book wasn't that bad, either. I haven't read the second volume yet (I have it, just haven't read it yet).
CN: Ah, you're just being your usual nice, diplomatic self. Granted, I dug Rising Stars and Midnight Nation. Let's put it this way, he hasn't written a good comic in quite some time. Before Watchmen is no exception. I think this is the project that has finally used up all of the good will he built up with Babylon 5.
BC: Oh, don't get me wrong, I haven't looked forward to a book written by him since his Brave and the Bold run began in mid-2009 (which turned out poorly enough that I was not expecting a lot from Grounded or Odyssey, and they still failed to meet my lowered expectations), but I think that there are so many comic book writers who have just flat out never written anything good that they are what I would term "just bad comic book writers" as opposed to good writers who have lost their way a bit. I think Straczynski falls into that latter category. The first eight years or so of his comic book writing career was good. The last three years have not been good. I don't think the latter necessarily supersedes the former. I still have hope for him!
CN: Ever the optimist... prepare for disappointment.
BC: Preparing for disappointment is the best way to read any Before Watchmen comic.