First Impressions: "Before Watchmen"

Since the initial announcement by DC Comics that they would publish a series of comics that take place prior to the events in the ground-breaking series "Watchmen" by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, the internet erupted in conversation. With discussions ranging from "I can't wait to read these" to "How dare they do this to Alan and Dave?" the response was passionate from all sides. Those discussions, positive or negative, haven't discouraged DC Comics one bit, with an all-star cast of writers and artists bringing "Before Watchmen" to comic shops this June.

CBR News was recently invited to the DC Entertainment offices in Burbank, CA to get an early look at "Before Watchmen." Over two visits, I reviewed hundreds of pages of pencils, inks, a handful of colored pages, and even some lettered pages. Below we share some early impressions on the series, but note these aren't full reviews as complete issues were not available.

I should note I accepted this invitation with one simple question hanging over me the entire time: can these prequels even come close to the quality and standards set by the original? Regardless of what you make of the project in general, my impression is that these will be well crafted, engaging comics on their own terms.

"Before Watchmen: Comedian"

Writer: Brian Azzarello

Artist: J.G. Jones

I had an early look at this book a few months ago and there were no letters available at that time, but the story and point of view of the book were clear already. Azzarello has made the Comedian a player involved in the middle of the biggest news stories of the '60s and the cast of historical characters that make an appearance in this book reads as a Who's Who of the time. The presence of the Vietnam War hangs over every page of this book as the Comedian's role in politics and war is played out, beautifully rendered by artist JG Jones. Upon a second viewing, when color artwork and some letters were made available, it was nice to see my initial assumptions about what was happening and the role the Comedian plays matched the words on the page. There's some tremendous story telling going on here and this is one of the books to keep an eye on. JG Jones' line work is simply perfect.

"Before Watchmen: Dr. Manhattan"

Writer: J. Michael Straczynski

Artist:  Adam Hughes

This book is harder to judge without letters as the story jumps around constantly from one time period in Jonathan Osterman's life to another, utilizing clock pieces in the artwork throughout to reflect the journey through time Straczynski takes his readers on. Hughes' artwork is gorgeous as always and yes, the big blue guy does show up naked in the first issue. My biggest concern coming away from my sneak peak at this book is one of clarity -- once I read the story with letters, will all be made clear to me, the reader?

"Before Watchmen: Minutemen"

Writer/Artist: Darwyn Cooke

This is another book where first time I viewed it I only had inked art, so it was hard to gain an impression of Cooke's story, especially considering these aren't the characters we, as readers of "Watchmen," are most familiar with. The artwork was instantly impressive -- Cooke's work never wavers and I believe this is some of the best work I've seen him do ever (and that's easier said than done considering the brilliant work he's done adapting the Parker novels to comics for IDW Publishing). Strong characters who are distinctly identifiable as individuals, beautiful design work that's perfectly suited for what is mostly a period book, but with some movement in time that shows the range Cooke has an artist.

The second viewing included a fully lettered issue and within a few quick pages, I was hooked. The story begins with Hollis Mason writing "Under the Hood" and he begins to tell his story when he pulls from a storage box the now iconic team picture of the Minutemen. This moment instantly connects the reader to "Watchmen" while transporting you back in time to the creation of that first super team. Cooke's artwork is a perfect fit with the setting and time period "Minutemen" exists in and is filled with homages to the original series.

Of all the "Before Watchmen" books, this is the series to watch.

"Before Watchmen: Nite Owl"

Writer: J. Michael Straczynski

Artists: Andy and Joe Kubert

This was another book that was hard to judge at first without letters, so I can't touch on that much, but while I found Andy Kubert's pencil work to be beautiful with great attention to detail, I found the inked art by his father Joe to be a tad heavy, canceling out some of the finer details of Andy's line work This is likely a conscious choice, as the art reflects a style of inking seen more regularly during the '60s, '70s and '80s.

The second reading with some text reveals more story, depicting Dreiberg as something of the ultimate fan boy, with the original Nite Owl Hollis Mason playing the role of father figure and mentor, depicting Dreiberg's journey from fan to hero. Again, I wasn't able to read the full issue, so it's hard to pass judgment on this book completely.

"Before Watchmen: Ozymandias"

Writer: Len Wein

Artist: Jae Lee

This is one of the hardest of these books to give an impression of with only pencils and some finished art to view. The story clearly gives a look in to the enigmatic personality of Adrian Veidt and his early life as a child prodigy, setting him up for decades of personal success. Lee's pencil work looks spectacular, as one would expect, but without seeing completed pages it's hard to offer fully formed thoughts.

"Before Watchmen: Rorschach"

Writer: Brian Azzarello

Artist: Lee Bermejo

This is easily the grittiest of all the "Before Watchmen" books and for good reason -- our good friend Rorschach is the lead. The tone is set starting on page two of the issue and while I have no wish to spoil the moment, think of the gruesomeness of the movie "Se7en" and you get the idea. Bermejo's artwork fully realizes the grimy, seedy side of 1970s New York City and the story Azzarello has crafted captures Rorschach's essence exactly as he's depicted in the original series -- one nasty dude you don't want to find yourself on the wrong side of.

"Before Watchmen: Silk Spectre"

Writer: Darwyn Cooke

Artist: Amanda Conner

This was the book I looked at last before I ran out of time and had to leave for my next appointment and I really wish it wasn't. When this project was initially announced, I was the least interested in "Silk Spectre," but that all changed the moment I began to look at the incredible pages by Amanda Conner. Enough can't be said about the personality Conner imbues each character with. You can tell from every expressions on the faces of the cast in this book their emotional state and point of view. Cooke and Conner appear to be a match made in comic book heaven.

Once you get a look at the "Before Watchmen" books, it's immediately evident all the creators involved are bringing their A-game, obviously inspired by the work of Moore and Gibbons and giving their all to add to that original story. There's a very seductive quality to all of these books, partly due to the familiarity of these characters, but also due to that level of quality every creator involved brings to their series.

Stay tuned to CBR News for more news and impressions of "Before Watchmen."

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