Before Watchmen: Comedian/Rorschach takes a different approach to telling a Watchmen prequel than did Darwyn Cooke's Minutemen/Silk Spectre. Cooke and Amanda Conner's stories took place behind the scenes of established Watchmen lore, weaving in and out of the original story, with plenty of touchstones -- from echoed images to panel layouts to the origin of that smiley face button -- to remind the reader that these new stories were riffs on the old.
Azzarello's Comedian and Rorschach, however, are almost self-contained stories, less Watchmen prequels and more character studies of each figure. This is somewhat discomfiting, actually; it invites consideration of these two characters on their own, separate from the larger Watchmen story, and that's not necessarily how I'd prefer to see them.
[Review contains spoilers]
The Comedian Edward Blake is the thread that ties the Cooke and Cooke/Conner stories together in the Minutemen/Silk Spectre volume. Comedian isn't the main character, but he receives spotlight scenes in both books that open up his character. In Minutemen, an uncharacteristically calm Comedian relates a harrowing experience fighting overseas in World War II; in Silk Spectre, Comedian goes to San Francisco in search of the missing Laurie Jupiter in a fit of paternal (if still violent) possessiveness.
Azzarello's Comedian is never quite so multi-faceted, or if he is, it isn't for long. The reader sees not Comedian, ultra-violent military man, at the beginning of the story, but rather Edward Blake, still enjoying a rowdy game of football even if the years are starting to show on him -- and even if he's playing football with the brothers Kennedy. But interspersed, the audience finds that Comedian had just killed Marilyn Monroe, and he equally bowls over an FBI sting that Comedian was only meant to watch, instead leaving a trail of gangsters' bodies in his wake.
In this way, perhaps, Azzarello's Comedian is more like Alan Moore's. In both places, Comedian is more a violent force of nature than a person, solely focused and irredeemable. Cooke's story tries to bring some dimension to the character, and maybe that's wrong; maybe Comedian, representing the worst nihilism of the Cold War era, isn't meant to be more than the one-note character that he appears in Watchmen. Cooke and Azzarello, in essence, come at Comedian from two different sides.
Azzarello's Comedian tale, however, with it's trip through history and rotating cast of Vietnam-era cameos, still itself feels more experimental, more related to something else -- Watchmen -- than does Azzarello's Rorschach. For better or worse, Rorschach could be a story about an anti-hero named Rorschach who tears up New York and could, a couple issues down the road, run afoul of Batman or the Justice League Dark. Depending on your take on the publication of the Before Watchmen stories in general, that's scary stuff, indeed.
Azzarello's Rorschach story is enjoyable enough with its noir and "hurm"-ing around -- and neither the art of Comedian's JG Jones or Rorschach's Lee Bermejo can be beat -- but to an extent I never felt Azzarello had Rorschach's voice quite right. Rorschach Walter Kovacs's journal is typed here in these earlier years, which is immediately offputting, and also I never thought Azzarello quite mastered the irony inherit in Moore's writing of Rorschach's journal -- in the second narration box, for instance, when Rorschach writes "My mother (may she rot in hell)," this seemed too on-the-nose; Rorschach's writing, as I conceive it, has more lofty effluvience. When Rorschach barges in on a drug dealer and says, "Bitch to be you right now," similarly this seemed to me too snappy for what we're meant to expect from Rorschach.
Though this is Before Watchmen, there's almost an Earth One vibe to the beginning of the Rorschach story, where Rorschach thinks he's going to burn a drug stash and is instead almost beaten to death by an angry gang. Even in Watchmen, Rorschach is never the smoothest vigilante, but this scene put me in mind of Geoff Johns and Gary Frank's Batman, falling off rooftops early in his career.
The most striking sequence of Azzarello's Rorschach story is when the writer separates man from mask. Inside, Kovacs is helpless as he's tortured; outside, the criminal Rawhead fights crime as an unusually muscular Rorschach. Kovacs is saved and Rawhead felled both by chance -- random violence worthy of the Comedian. It would seem a humbling moment for Rorschach, and Azzarello follows it with a scene, five years later, in which Rorschach, now leaping from buildings, seems more confident than before. Here, too, artist Bermejo finally adopts Watchmen's multi-panel grid, and it offers a sense of this Rorschach story showing how the vigilante evolved from his beginnings to his ultimate Watchmen portrayal.
Where the Rorschach story slipped for me, a little, was in the third chapter where Rorschach is rescued by a taxi driven by none other than Robert De Niro's Taxi Driver Travis Bickle. Parallels between Rorschach and Bickle are obvious, but in actually inserting Bickle into the story, Azzarello creates a meta-commentary that distracts from the story itself (this is different from the Kennedys and others appearing in Comedian, which fit as part of the overall plot). At worst, Azzarello's pairing of Rorschach and Bickle comes off as "fan-fiction-y" ("What would happen if Rorschach was out one night, and this taxi pulled up ...?"). This kind of thing works when the nods are more understated, as when late in the book a thug asks Rorschach for his real name and Rorschach replies, "Vic."
I didn't dislike Before Watchmen: Comedian/Rorschach -- the stories kept my interest and offered attractive art -- but I wouldn't say they enhanced my reading of Watchmen itself the way I'd say Before Watchmen: Minutemen/Silk Spectre did. Die-hard Rorschach fans may like this spotlight story (I'm not sure there really are die-hard Comedian fans), but if I had to pick between those two Before Watchmen books, I'd pick the other.