July 6, 2012

ON COMICS: 'Before Watchmen' Ozymandias #1

Ozymandias #1, as written by Len Wein and drawn by Jae Lee, is so far the best book in DC's 'Before Watchmen' launch; and when I say the best, it is by far the best. 

There is not a single thing about it which is not completely satisfying. This book is a masterclass in how to take the mundane elements of an origin story--those plot and character points which must inevitably get checked off in our hero's journey from schoolboy to superhero--and lay them out on the page in such a way that the elegance of the visual storytelling overcomes any apprehensions of familiar plotting.

And, really, this is what every good comic should do; but in a medium so entrenched in re-telling its origins and re-working its myths, a medium so reliant on a recognizable, standardized length and format, that to deviate to the extreme in form or content risks marginalizing its core readership--a good superhero origin story is about as elusive as a unicorn in a field of four-leaf clovers.

And perhaps it is especially rare to see just intelligence, rigor and attentive design to a project which has been almost universally decried--as intellectual theft, as actual theft, as crass commercialism, or just pure bad taste. But I feel like, in the five issues of 'Before Watchmen' released, Ozymandias #1 is the first to actually touch on the potential greatness--the sheer creative excitement--of revisiting the world of Watchmen: that is, is a self-contained, self-sufficient, singular entity. As far as I can tell, Ozymandias #1 does nothing to tarnish what Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons did in Watchmen, but it does a helluva job of tapping into what made that seminal work so spectacular. 

Just look at this asshole.

What I like about Wein's structure for the first issue is that he starts big; right off the bat we have a famous Watchmen splash page. Everyone knows Ozymandias is the villain. There's no reason to pussyfoot around the realities of Adrian Veidt: he's a zillionaire, he's a genius, he's a martial arts expert and world-class gymnast, he genetically engineered a giant pet cat named Bubastis, he lives in a goddamn ice fortress in Antarctic. Adrian Veidt is not subtle. Adrian Veidt is an asshole who knows everything and may or may not be a completely justified mass murder. Len Wein perfectly captures that sort of charming dickishness inherent in Veidt's character; he's such a little prick but we can't help admiring him at least a little bit because he's also right. Ozymandias at least has the courage of his (crazy, maniacal) convictions; like Lex Luthor, he's a compelling megalomaniac. 

Baby Adrian is, of course, the same. Wein absolutely nails Veidt's infuriatingly precise, logical, almost Spock-like reasoning. This one page of background pretty much gives you everything you need to know about Veidt. And check out that final panel! That's the kind of too-obvious in-joke that might have turned me off if this issue weren't otherwise so beautifully written and drawn. 

I mean. C'mon, right? No, but it's fantastic.

As much as Len Wein's characterization is spot-on, I honestly think the VIP of this issue, and probably the entire 'Before Watchmen' series so far, is artist Jae Lee. Let me level with you: I have no idea who Jae Lee is, but goddamn if he is not the perfect person to draw Ozymandias. Just look at the way he draws Veidt's face throughout the book: the eyebrows raised in superciliousness, the impetuous little curl in his inhumanly golden hair--just the way Adrian always looks as though he's thinking about everything in the world except the other human being in the room with him. It's a far-off look; it's a look of Alexandrian conquest. 

The story follows Veidt through everything Ozymandias told us in Watchmen--that his parents died, he gave away his family fortune and went on a "vision quest" to the Far East, ate some hash, fucked some dudes (you're surprised? c'mon), and practiced his kung fu for future crime-fighting and world-conquering purposes. 

Wein & Lee have crafted a book that doesn't ape the look or feel of Watchmen, but one that has--what can I say?--a vibe, a certain rhythmic similarity; it strikes a tone on the page. Colorist June Chung does a stellar job of washing the book in constant--yet almost subliminal--sunshine; the entire thing seems dipped in gold, as if the color were emanating from Veidt himself and staining every page. One notable exception is the very first page, which recreates the famous "shot" of Veidt standing in front of his wall of television monitors in his Antarctic fortress, poised to unleash devastation across the globe. This glorious splash page is ice cold.

Much has been made of Watchmen's visual rigor, the nine-panel format and frequent use of recurring imagery, mirrored panels, and of course, that famous symmetrical chapter. That kind of discipline, planning and precision would be daunting to anyone taking up the Watchmen mantle, and it seems like most writers & artists of 'Before Watchmen' have chosen to go their own way in constructing their comics. Fair enough. 

But perhaps the most impressive aspect of Ozymandias #1 is the way in which the entire book is constructed of circles and squares (well, rectangles). Not only do the circles echo the recurring image of the snow globe/perfume bottle in the original Watchmen series (and included by Darwyn Cooke & Amanda Connor in Silk Spectre #1--nice!), here they serve the very economical function of divvying up each page and getting as much story in as possible. There is a lot to this book; a lot of words, a lot of art, and an awful lot of Veidt's background. Wein & Lee cover twenty years in thirty pages, and not a single beat seems out of place. Some of the other 'Before Watchmen' have had some major pacing issues, but this one seems perfectly calibrated. Not an inch of the frame is wasted, partially due to the contrasting circle-within-rectangle, frame-within-frame structure. 

This thing is elegant as fuck. It's smooth, controlled, powerful and yet quiet...much like Adrian Veidt himself? I may be overreaching a bit here, but Ozymandias #1 does project a quiet confidence and self-assuredness. It's certainly the first 'Before Watchmen' title I've wanted to read the next issue of right away. It's completely fulfilling yet leaves you wanting much, much more. If you've been skeptical about the merits of this whole 'Before Watchmen' business, Ozymandias #1 might be the title to change your mind.

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