Before Watchmen: Ozymandias
Watchmen was a revolutionary text, it brought respect to a medium that was then – and is still – seen as a novelty; you know, for kids. Not only was the content of this book more adult than most others out there it was made for mature reading: it had themes and metaphors and meanings. It was in a word, novelistic. So much so that TIME magazine ranked it amongst the top one hundred novels of all time – the only illustrated work to feature – and the term ‘Graphic Novel’ was spawned. So far the first issues of Before Watchmen have replicated many of the original book’s characters and concepts, some better than others, but Ozymandias is the only one to feels as classy as that now canonical text, it is the first to feel truly ‘novelistic’.
Now, many comic fans like the medium because it is, generally speaking, easier than most others: a comic is speedier, simpler and more servicing than any other narrative form. These people may well be put off by the pacing of this book, they may find it ‘too wordy’ but for me it was absolutely perfect. After all, who ever picked up an Alan Moore book for an easy read? Writer Len Wein also has a very distinct style, one apart from all others, though you would be forgiven for not knowing it.
See he has had a very quiet past few years but once upon a time his name was all over massive books: he’s written a handful of the big name heroes, created others like Swamp Thing and even edited Watchmen. Yes that Watchmen. He is then the perfect person for this series, after all if Alan Moore can reinvent one of his characters why can’t he return the favour? Wein may not be an ‘Architect’, he may be old news now but as the Smartest Man in the World says, “History will have the final word,” though in Len’s case in may be more like the final paragraph.
See, that distinctive style I mentioned is so fresh and remarkable because of just how old it is; he literally writes his comics like they are prose novels, as if they are texts exactly akin to those Adrian skims so studiously and not a lesser than. His pages consist mostly then of captioned text, that trademark Wein-y narration, and amongst these are scattered pop outs of “He Said” and other such arbitrary notions of syntax. Simply flooding the page with words does not of course instantly equate to depth ( if it did my reviews would be some of the smartest around) but not having to stunt his sentences does allow a writer like Len room to write some of the most poetic and thematically potent stuff that I’ve seen in a comic for a while, hell seen anywhere.
Whereas Moore, especially in his modern day works, can let this denseness drag his books down to the bottom of the ocean, making them read as if in slow motion, Len still manages to keep his book light and on the move. Right from the get go it is obvious that Wein gets what the purpose of this series is, the first page a narrative bookend establishing that Ozymandias is looking back on his life up to the point at which he presses the button on his plan. From there we jump back to the beginning and are given a great scattering of stories from his childhood, each individually interesting but together they paint a most fascinating portrait and the close is satisfying but leaves you salivating for more; which you are then given, the book only half over.
So Wein writes like a novelist but still nails the structuring of the single issue though that’s not all. I’ve been raving this whole time about the brilliant writing but his Ozymandias is not so lopsided, the art by Jae Lee just about holds its own, as strong as his script. His style is unlike anything else that I’ve seen; it’s not just classy but classical and so it suits this historical text to a tee. I’m not a scholar of the field so I can’t do it justice but the detail both in the art and the way it is structured is incredible, as is the way that it remains obvious illustration. If you don’t buy the book at least flick through it for a glimpse of this stuff, that’s all I’ll say.
The only flaw in this book is that it is unfinished. As mentioned above the issue is a satisfying whole however it’s novelistic approach acquires it a different set of standards, one in which ‘satisfying’ isn’t really applicable. You can’t write an essay on the first chapter of Camus or any other piece of the canon, no matter what every student ever may think; similarly, any analysis of this text would be assumptuous at best because its themes (Power, pride and Objectivism) are only introduced, not explored. This too is an assumption, but come the second to sixth chapters and this comic may well work its way into a list of the greats, it’s that good a book.