Every week, Chad Nevett and I will be reviewing an issue of Before Watchmen through a discussion of each issue. We continue with Rorschach #1 by Brian Azzarello (writer), Lee Bermejo (art) and Barbara Ciardo (colors).
Brian Cronin: I continue to be impressed with Brian Azzarello's approach to his Before Watchmen issues, as he trusts that we know who these characters are and just goes off to do his own story. This rings especially true with Rorschach, where the temptation to handle the 1975 transformation of "Walter Kovacs dressed as Rorschach" into "Rorschach" must be tremendous, as I'm sure many a writer believes that he or she could do justice to that tragically disturbed era of Rorschach's life - the problem is that they would almost certainly be wrong. Alan Moore said pretty much all you could say about that point in Rorschach's life in Watchmen #6. No, if you're going to do a Rorschach story, you just have to do a story starring Rorschach and not try to explain to us how he ticks - just do an interesting story with him already ticking. That is what Azzarello does with this issue, which I presume is set soon after the passage of the Keene Act that banned costumed crimefighters. That is, I believe that this issue takes place after the passage of the Keene Act. The time in the issue is July of 1977. I don't believe we've ever been told WHEN in 1977 the Keene Act passed, but since there is more drama to be had in the post-Keene era of New York City, I presume that's where we are. Do you agree on the timeline or do you think that this is pre-Keene Act?
In any event, it was a straightforward opening but an interesting one, as Rorschach finds himself run afoul of a new gang of crooks who have set a trap for Rorschach and are not all that impressed with what they discover.
I really liked the extended diary section that opened the story. Holy shit, did Rorschach have a fucked up childhood or what?
Lee Bermejo does a good job on the art, although there were a few moments where his figure work was probably a bit on the stiff side (I liked the "serious smack" pun).
Chad Nevett: I didn't even consider the Keene Act. For some reason, it seems... irrelevant to Rorschach. Pre-Keene, post-Keene, it doesn't make a difference to Rorschach. Maybe that's the point of setting it in 1977 where we don't know which side of the Act it falls on. If so, that's a subtle way of communicating something about the character -- especially since leaving it ambiguous would mean that the Keene Act will never be mentioned. I hope that's the case.
Another 'subtle' idea placed is in using the typewriter font for the journal entries instead of the hand-written style from the original series. I interpret that as a nod towards Rorschach's comment in the original about his entries being made in the early draft of his journal. Like he writes it out by hand initially and, then, cleans it up on the typewriter. Since this is well in the past from then, he would have had the time to type the entries for 1977 up. Or, am I reading too much into a font choice?
Getting to the actual comic, I liked this issue. As you said, Azzarello trusts the readers to know the score ahead of time and goes from there. I'm a little surprised at how 'ordinary' Rorschach seems, especially in how he fell into that trap. We'd seen him taken down by superior numbers before and there's a sense that this alludes to his arrest in the original series. The same panic at the surprise and inability to defeat superior numbers... But, at the same time, he doesn't look particularly good in his failed attempt to fight off the gang either. That's a surprising choice, particularly since him having a better showing wouldn't have changed the scene too much.
And, you're right about Bermejo's art. In some places, I really liked it, but, in others, it was too stiff or overly rendered/referenced. But, that's not surprising, since that's the direction he's been moving in for years.
BC: Great point about the Keene Act. You know, the fact that Azzarello specifically set the issue at the exact mid-point of the year does suggest that he's saying "pre-Keene/post-Keene, it really doesn't matter with Rorschach."
I imagine that Rorschach not being able to take on all of the bad guys in this issue while he was able to take out even more in Watchmen does play some sort of role - like perhaps this is a message to Rorschach that he needs to train more or something along those lines?
Something that struck me at the end of the issue - are we to believe that Walter Kovacs looks tough? He's five foot six and 140 pounds. That's not exactly physically imposing, and yet the people in the diner at the end are shocked that he got mugged. Strange.
It's kind of interesting that the approach of some of these comics have been so poor that we're both impressed by stuff like this issue, which is an extremely simple story, ya know?
CN: I took that as them being shocked that someone would think to rob a man that looks almost homeless and completely harmless. Like, why go to the effort to robbing such a pathethic individual when there are so many other targets that could actually make you some money? Who's going to rob a guy who walks around with a 'The end is near' sign?
Rorschach was adept before this, though. He's been doing this for years and I can't imagine that he would have lasted so long if he could be taken out so easily.
I did like how the head of the gang didn't care who was underneath the mask, because that person doesn't matter. No one cares about Kovacs, just Rorschach -- which goes along with the surprise that someone would rob him. It's funny how everything about this world, including Rorschach himself, seems aimed at destroying Walter Kovacs, either through force or by simply denying his existence.
And, of course, Azzarello remembers K.I.S.S.
BC: Ah, that's an interesting theory. I dunno, though, wouldn't the completely harmless people be the BIGGEST targets for muggers?
But yeah, I do like the idea that Kovacs has been so marginalized that even the bad guys think that there is no point in knowing who Rorschach is beneath the mask.
And as for Rorschach's competency, do we really know that he is really all THAT adept in crime-fighting before the 1980s? Most of the stuff we saw him do in the flashbacks in Watchmen were not exactly great physical feats. Heck, the biggest flashback we got to Rorschach's past was the scene where he chops up the dogs. That's not the same thing as taking on five guys, ya know? Something he does easily in the present day scenes in Watchmen but can't handle this issue. So I think that there's a good chance that Azzarello is intentionally showing us that Rorschach was not as bad ass in 1977.
CN: There's a difference between 'harmless' and 'crazy homeless-looking.' I think...
I don't know... I would assume by this point in his career, he'd put up a better fight than he does.
This issue also marked the final chapter of "The Curse of the Crimson Corsair" that Len Wein is writing before John Higgins takes over with the next chapter in Dr. Manhattan #1. We've been a little down on Wein's writing on that feature over the past month or so, but he managed to bring something special to his exit. Bombastic and over-the-top and a little weird, it's not at all like what we'd seen previously and kind of makes me wish he wasn't leaving. He really goes for it with our narrator dealing with losing his soul, not being able to die, and being bound to the Flying Dutchman -- and Higgins! HIGGINS! He matches Wein and delivers some fantastic-looking art that, like the writing, is a deparate from what we've gotten in this strip so far. It almost makes you wonder what's next... and can Higgins keep things interesting solo?
BC: The key point is that Higgins is not leaving, and he's been the best part of the strip. But yeah, Wein had a fine farewell with this story. It was trippy but interesting. I was even okay with the appearance of the Crimson Corsair, who I did not want to see again for some time.
As to whether Higgins can keep it up, I really have no idea whatsoever. I do have hope, though! I wish I had as much hope for Doctor Manhattan #1...
CN: At the very least, we've have Higgins's art. Hell, with Dr. Manhattan, we'll also have Adam Hughes's art -- interior work at that.
Also, we're at the stage where every series will be happening at the same time in this weird release schedule where each week is almost a surprise over what comic will come out. It's similar to Morrison's Seven Soldiers, but that felt a little more organised. This seems like a staggered launch built around hitting deadlines more than anything. Which is fine. But, how long before we completely lose track of what's going on?
BC: Oh yeah, Seven Soldiers was a heck of a lot more organized, and even that had some disorganization when Ferry left Mister Miracle early. I find it hard to believe that we'll find all that much interaction between these series, except perhaps the Hooded Justice mystery.
CN: I just hope it's solved in the back-up strip. Hooded Justice is the Crimson Corsair!
BC: That'll be the introduction of the Black Freighter!