The Comedian is Alive : Brian Azzarello – “Before Watchmen: The Comedian”

It’s not only Harry Bosch who gets mixed up on racial riots in L.A.

ABOVE: Yellow Fever

According to “Before Watchmen,” (the controversial prequel to Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ unmatched “Watchmen”), the Comedian was there for the 1965 Watts riots, his face painted into a yellow, race-mocking smiley. If you haven’t heard, the Comedian is the “super”- “hero” whose murder kick-starts the events of “Watchmen.” (Those quotation marks around “super” and “hero” are m0re than necessary: The Comedian is a  brutal, callous thug who punctuates his acts of extreme violence with grating comic book wise-cracks. He’s The Joker without the excuse of stylized insanity.)

In 1965, The Comedian is alive and well and creating trouble. Confronted by some of the Watts rioters, he jokes about “the pot calling the kettle BLACK” (JOKE 1, let’s call it), except he never gets there because of the brick that gets thrown at his face. The brick says “Herriman” on it, a nod to George Herriman,  the creator of the Krazy Kat comic strip- that famously  features a lot of brick throwing.

ABOVE: Before Itchy and Scratchy, before Tom and Jerry, there was Ignatz and Krazy Kat

Cute reference… and totally extraneous to the story.  There’s nothing too wrong with it: Marvel and DC Comics practically make it a house rule that every street-sign and store-front and theater-marquee must be an in-joke or a shout-out. There have been so many Kirby streets over the years!  But this particular allusion takes us out of historical concreteness into DC conventions, and ruins a serious moment of violence: It’s hard to get too concerned about the situation when the writer, Brian Azzarello, just reminded us that we’re not looking at a  heavy brick but at a playful gag. (Unless a very heroic defender wants to argue that Azzarello  was making an esoteric meta-comment about contrived comic-book shout-outs.)

Turn the page, and this happens:

Before Watchmen-Zone-014

ABOVE: It’s a riot!

Top left panel: Protester asks, “We s’posed to laugh? You think all black people are Sammy Davis Jr.?” The Comedian, who as you can see hasn’t been slowed down by the jokey brick that might have made you or I spit a tooth, starts a set-up for JOKE 2: “Sammy’s BLACK? Huh…”

Top right panel: PUNCHLINE 2: “…Thought he was a JEW. And yeah, you SHOULD laugh. I mean…” Set-up for JOKE 3!

Lower panel: PUNCHLINE 3: “It’s a riot.”

That’s pretty good! A tonally-correct imitation of the Comedian’s moments in “Watchmen.” Look at the glee on his face! It’s almost an Alan Moore moment.  ALMOST. EXCEPT Azzarello RUINS IT because when we needed a chilling close-up on the Comedian, we instead get a panel that refuses to end, extending to the right to a nattering woman who’s explaining subtext in clunky lines, and effectively defusing the panel’s punchline. It failed, as they say, to stick the landing.

In short, Alan Moore would have known better.

That half-clever, half-self-defeating approach is the hallmark of “Before Watchmen.” I’ve read a couple of issues of the other series (The Minutemen, Silk Spectre,  Nite Owl, Ozymandias, Moloch, Dollar Bill and Dr. Manhattan all get titles). The problem is simple: the whole enterprise is “collect-them-all” pastiche, inherently inferior to its source material even though DC gathered a nice array of writers (Azzarello, Darwyn Cooke, J. Michael Straczinsky, Len Wein, and Amanda Conner). It’s as if an editorial board-room somewhere had decided that the Inferno was great, but what if there was a prequel detailing Dante’s youthful demon-hunting days, and maybe someone like Clive Barker would write it? That could be decent – but it could never hope to be Divine, could it?

Saddest of all is that the idea of Watchmen prequels have been ridiculed for ages. The Simpsons did it!

ABOVE: “A ‘Watchmen’ prequel?! Everything’s coming up Milhouse!”

RATING: Some COOL!, mostly SHRUG, works itself out to GOOD ENOUGH.

POST-SCRIPT :

From a long, cantankerous, paranoid, ( but entertaining ) interview with Alan Moore  

“What the comics industry has effectively said is, “Yes, this was the only book that made us briefly special and that was because it wasn’t like all the other books.”  It was something that stood on its own and it had the integrity of a literary work.  What they’ve decided now is, “So, let’s change it to a regular comic that can run indefinitely and have spin-offs.” and “Let’s make it as unexceptional as possible.”  Like I say, they’re doing this because they haven’t got any other choices left, evidently.”

Interview by Kurt Amacker, published by Seraphemera Books  ( http://www.seraphemera.org )

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3 thoughts on “The Comedian is Alive : Brian Azzarello – “Before Watchmen: The Comedian”

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  3. Pingback: Heroes and Monsters : Alan Moore, Kevin O’Neill – “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” V. 1 and 2 (Re-Read) | THE PAGEAHOLIC

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