Review: Before Watchmen: Ozymandias/Crimson Corsair deluxe hardcover (DC Comics)

Monday, July 01, 2013

Of them all, Len Wein's Before Watchmen: Ozymandias/Crimson Corsair is the volume I'd most suggest skipping, which officially makes Darwyn Cooke's Minutemen/Silk Spectre the best collection of the bunch and J. Michael Straczynski's Nite Owl (of which I received an advance review copy) the best individual miniseries. Your results may, of course, necessarily vary.

Though between Jae Lee and Steve Rude (drawing and lettering), there's plenty nice to look at in Ozymandias/Crimson Corsair, I felt this book contributed the least to the goal of fleshing out or re-imagining the motiviations of the Watchmen characters. Ozymandias is an over-narrated rehash of what the reader could mostly glean on their own from Watchmen; Corsair falls apart in collected form, these two-page backup stories being too choppy to be read one after another after another. The Dollar Bill one-shot here, too, fleshes out this one-note Watchmen character, but fails to surprise or in any way modify the reader's understanding of the character.

[Review contains spoilers for all the Before Watchmen books]

Wein's Ozymandias has moments when it feels like it's going somewhere, lifted largely by threads carried over from other books. Ozymandias Adrian Veidt, for instance, begins to investigate the death of Hooded Justice, a major aspect of the Minutemen book, but this is forgotten after a fight with Comedian. Equally the Ozymandias story looks at the deaths of John F. Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe, which factor into the Comedian story, but these, too, are forgotten fairly quickly. Finally, Ozymandias arrives at the momentous meeting between Dr. Manhattan and Veidt, also shown in the Manhattan book, where Manhattan is duped into Veidt's conspiracy; there is nothing new revealed from Ozymandias's side, however, and the end pales in comparison to Straczynski's wild, winding Manhattan tale.

Wein certainly understands Ozymandias, or at least his place in Watchmen, emphasizing Ozymandias and Comedian's roles as two sides of the same cultural divide. More than anything to do with Ozymandias, the real power of Wein's story may be in fleshing out a bit how Comedian stumbled upon Ozymandias's doomsday conspiracy; it never quite hit home to me just how terrible Ozymandias's cloned monstrosity had to be to put Comedian off his game, and Wein does a good job in this aspect.

In the beginning I actually liked Wein's Crimson Corsair story more than I thought I would. If we set aside the apocalyptic undertones that made the original Black Freighter story resonate within Watchmen, it serves as an enjoyable horror tale in the fashion of the old EC Comics, and Corsair, in the beginning, lives up to that tradition well. The "Devil in the Deep" story is nicely horrific, between the poor sailor keehauled, the sunken ship and precarious raft (reminiscent of Black Freighter), and ultimately Gordon McClachlan's deal with the devilish Corsair for want of his soul.

But "Devil in the Deep" gives way to "The Evil That Men Do," and from the start it's a different story. There's two, almost three of the Corsair sections that are just philosophical meandering -- even if the writing is lyrical, it fails to move the story forward, and Corsair never quite regains its momentum. There's some confused sequences where McClachlan seems to be the last survivor of a slave ship, then he's captured, then other slavers are still alive, then someone is killed that looks like McClachlan but turns out to be another sailor, McClachlan is spared but then he's going to be killed with boiling gold, and so on.

Ultimately there are so many confusing reversals, with the story restarting every other page, and perhaps too much verbiage for such a small space, that I was just happy when the tale came to an end (with a twist ending that might've been the best part). Wein has talked about some issues with artist and eventual Corsair writer John Higgens and I can't say how those factored, but the story represents neither creator very well.

Again, the Dollar Bill one-shot too adds little to Before Watchmen overall, though Steve Rude imbues the book with some impressive Golden Age silliness. I'm most familiar personally with Rude's art deco Gotham and Metropolis in he and Dave Gibbons's World's Finest, and I enjoyed seeing Rude's looser style here, with purposefully haphazard (Golden Age-eque) word balloons. There's a particularly good sequence where Wein has Dollar Bill visiting a string of increasingly seedy movie producers, and Rude keeps the panel sizes the same while progressively lowering the ceilings such to make it look like the panels are shrinking when they're not. Pretty to look at, if otherwise unremarkable.

Though understandably controversial, the Before Watchmen books have not, for me, been a total loss. Each of the books so far have expanded my perception of the original Watchmen story, Minutemen/Silk Spectre and Nite Owl/Dr. Manhattan especially (reviews of Nite Owl/Dr. Manhattan and Comedian/Rorschach coming in two weeks). Only Before Watchmen: Ozymandias/Crimson Corsair did not; as the supposed finale of the Before Watchmen books, unfortunately this one is not a strong conclusion.
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