Before Watchmen – Ozymandias 1

Today, Shelby and Patrick are discussing Ozymandias 1, originally released July 4th, 2012. Ozymandias is part of DC’s Before Watchmen prequel series. Click here for complete Before Watchmen coverage (including release dates).

Shelby: So far, Before Watchmen has been largely a success. Minute Men 1 didn’t really offer anything new, it merely fleshed out character traits we were already familiar with, and that was just fine. Silk Spectre 1 took character traits we knew and crafted a narrative to show us their origin; it was a new story based on old facts, and it was very good. Comedian 1 took that a step further by taking what we thought we knew and twisting it around, without losing sight of Moore’s original intent; I thought it was exceptionally good. Nite Owl 1 was a huge step backwards; it invented a narrative which didn’t match the character traits it was meant to originate. The whole thing felt forced and unnecessary. Ozymandias 1, happily, is a step back towards Minute Men; we don’t learn anything new about Adrian Veidt, and that’s completely ok.

This issue is basically an expansion of the background story Adrian gave to his servants after he poisoned them in Watchmen: from his parents first arriving in NY, his childhood, their death and his travels in Alexander the Great’s footsteps, to when he first donned the Ozymandias costume. I was a little put off at first; he says in the first page that he is recording the events “that have led me to this moment…[on the chance] that I am not successful.” That seems like a dumb move; even if he was successful, if someone found the record of what he had done, it would all be for naught. Let us not forget, Adrian Veidt is not prone to dumb moves. I decided not to get hung up on that, however; Adrian is not dumb enough to leave evidence lying around, and he is definitely smart enough to believe in the power and necessity of history, which is ultimately why he is recording his story. He was ultimately created from the history of a man arrogant enough to believe he could control the world, why shouldn’t he leave the same sort of history behind?

Like I said earlier, we don’t really get anything new out of this story. Dialogue from Watchmen is just weaved throughout, but it doesn’t feel redundant. If anyone is going to make that kind of story-telling work, it’s Len Wein; he was, after all, the editor for Watchmen, so he’s got a familiarity with the story. The one detail that really stood out to me was the reason why Adrian first put on the cape and mask of Ozymandias. His girlfriend, a sassy redhead by the name of Miranda, was feeling neglected and frustrated, so she went out to a club and ran into Moloch, who was peddling some serious drugs. A few hours later, Adrian comes home to find her dead from overdose in their bed. Is Adrian so overcome with grief he decides to become the caped crusader Ozymandias, so he can mete out justice upon the fiend who caused the death of his beloved? Only kind of: he definitely mourns for Miranda, but he ultimately decides to become a superhero to avoid bad press. It doesn’t come off as a selfish move, either. It’s just very cold and calculating; he is a businessman, doing what is best for his business. One of the most compelling things about the character Ozymandias in Watchmen is how he can be so cold to kill so many people, but at the same time admit that he feels great remorse for such an act. I’m glad Wein has maintained that curious balance.

The art, though, is what sold me on this issue. Jae Lee has a beautiful painterly style, and he layouts have this great, Art Deco advertising vibe to them. I’m a great lover of Alphonse Mucha (I have a tattoo inspired by his work), and this page made me think of him immediately.

The use of round panels with rectangles, the painterly details, the decorative background designs: the whole book has this vintage, deco feel. I adore it. The story could have been awful, and I would have been drawn to this art. Lee also has this great way of dissolving the background into pattern and texture so the characters are highlighted. I had a hard time choosing my favorite panel featuring this, but I think it’s this one. I’m not even sure exactly what is happening in this, I think it’s two little girls playing on swings hanging from a tree branch, but he’s turned it into a post-apocalyptic silhouette, echoing the spray-painted lovers from Watchmen.

Look at those writhing, inky lines! I haven’t seen art like this in any other title: it’s moody, unique, beautiful.

I’m really happy Before Watchmen seems to be back on track. We’re 4 for 5 now with these titles, and I’m pretty satisfied with that. Patrick, what about you? Do you think Ozymandias belongs with Minute Men, Silk Spectre, and Comedian as the “good” titles?

Patrick: I’ve got mixed feelings about this issue. On the one hand, it is breathtaking. The art is positively astounding for all the reasons you mentioned, but I don’t see anything particularly compelling about the narrative. Sure, the broad strokes of the story are interesting, but those strokes were laid out in Watchmen. I’ve got no specific complaints with the way the story is told either. So why does it feel… a little bit off?

Perhaps by design. The story is carefully narrated by Adrian’s academic retelling of his own history. You used the word “cold” to describe Adrian like a billion times above but it’s the perfect way to express his level of constant detachment. Yeah, we get the occasional speech bubble, but no action goes uncommented on by Veidt. But he doesn’t editorialize at all. He’s strictly reporting the fact.

I’ve read a lot of crummy comics that take this approach: they present a lot of moments from a character’s past complete with running commentary by that character. It’s a quick and dirty way to burn through some backstory – I saw this a lot in the 3-issue Flashpoint series that were struggling to relay an entire alternate history in 60 pages. But the utility of that method of storytelling is usually employed for its economy, not for its thematic relevance, as it is here. Check out this page from about half-way through this issue:

Certainly, there are more active panels that could have portrayed what’s happening in these voice-over boxes. But Wein and Lee chose two static images: a coin and a map. The map contains a red line that lays out Alexander’s path… or wait, does it show us Adrian’s path? And that coin: logically, I know that’s Alexander’s face on the coin, but it could just as easily be Adrian’s face. The comic book hero/villain and the historical personage become so intertwined that the only correct way to recount either of their adventures is academically. And Adrian does everything the correct way.

There are a bunch of examples of panels that could have totally destroyed this narrative trick of extreme detachment, but hold it together due to the distanced narration. The most striking of which is this impressively gruesome image of Adrian defending himself for the first time against a group of bullies. He had been tormented for months, and decided to learn how to fight back. After weeks of hard work and patience, he’s able to to the following:

I mean JESUS, that’s intense. But the narration never raises above a strict reporting of the facts.

But I do wonder where this series goes from here. Ozymandius is one of the 6-issue series, so we’re buckled in for the long haul. I don’t know if I want to see the same tactic for each issue. It doesn’t seem like it would be all that sustainable anyway: if the story always moves forward at this pace, we’re likely to catch up with the giant octopus monster by the end of issue 2. Oh, speaking of that octopus monster, I appreciate the nods to the original series.

Man, oh man, every time I flip back through this book, I find the circle panels haunting. After talking about that coin on page 13, all the circles start to look like moments from history, minted and immortalized as currency.

For a complete list of what we’re reading, head on over to our Pull List page.  Whenever possible, buy your comics from your local mom and pop comic bookstore.  If you want to rock digital copies, head on over to DC’s website and download issues there.  There’s no need to pirate, right?

22 comments on “Before Watchmen – Ozymandias 1

  1. I felt the same with Minute Men. It wasn’t bad, but there wasn’t anything especially new or compelling either. I think it was the art that elevated this issue from just a “it’s fine” level to something very different.

    You’re right, though; this detached narrative style will not hold up well for 5 more issues.

    • Well and – why would you really want it to? It’s a neat trick for a 20-something page issue, but a 100+ page series would certain start to sag under the weight of all that distance.

      • That will really be the trick: can Wein make us feel connected to the most distant character in the series?

  2. Did we previously have confirmation on Rorschach’s suspicions that Veidt might be gay? Or at least open to fucking young men in addition to whatever other romantic exploits shaped him.

    • We did not! I had forgotten about Rorschach’s suspiocions on the matter.

      It almost seems like Veidt is too distant to care about gender, but not so cold to not need companionship once in a while.

      • Maybe it’s just the fact that it’s no longer 1985, but I’d always read Rorschach’s suspecting Veidt is gay to be just more right-wing conspiracy theorizing. I never thought it made much sense — not because Veidt doesn’t read as gay, but because he reads as entirely asexual. I kind of disagree with Shelby’s assertion that he needs companionship every once and a while. We don’t see him interact with very many people in Watchmen, but he kills (or attempts to kill) pretty much all of them.

        So I don’t really buy that the impetus for Veidt’s costumed adventuring was a lost lover. That he ever thought he could accomplish anything dressing up and fighting criminals one-at-a-time always seemed like a strange miscalculation for “the smartest man on the planet,” and I don’t think this issue really explains it satisfactorily.

        • That’s where the weird disconnect with the character comes in. He’s the smartest man in the world, but he’s still a man, still human. Even Dr. Manhattan looks for companionship, and he’s way way way more than human.

          And, again, he’s not donning the costume to avenge his lost love, he’s doing it to seek justice in a way that won’t harm his name or business.

        • But does Veidt care about justice, or even the deaths of people he cares about? Ultimately, he kills throngs of people (some of whom he was quite close with) to cover up a plan to kill millions more. You can argue moral relativism all you want, but those don’t sound like the actions of someone who holds individual human lives as sacrosanct.

        • True. The only hint of remorse we get in Watchmen is when he tells Dr. Manhattan he “made himself feel every death,” whatever that means.

          Bubastis is a great example. He was very fond of her, and did not want her to die, but it did not stop him from vaporizing her when that was the “smartest” option present. Really, he’s just a tough character to nail down.

  3. I was so hoping you would point out the panel with the alien monster poster. That’s one of those little nods to the original that I love seeing in these titles.

    • I also like the reinforcement of that ending. The movie kinda white-washed that business with the transdimensional terror from across the stars, but it’s nice to see that Wein doesn’t shy away from it here. Do you think maybe we’ll see some of Ozy’s adventures traveling to insane worlds and selecting just the perfect Lovecraftian horror to save the world?

      • The movie didn’t kinda white-wash it, it eliminated it completely. And honestly, I think that was ok. I don’t think a transdimentional horror that wipes out millions and drives millions more insane with psychic powers a) holds up as well now as it did in the past and b) just doesn’t translate as well to the big screen.

  4. So…Veidt was known as “the smartest man on the planet”? I thought that was a title held by Ozymandias (hence the Comedian’s “smartest man on the cinder” dig), and that nobody knew Ozy was Veidt until he retired. Am I fixating on petty details here, or does this seem important to anyone else? I hate to be a continuity-phile, but the Watchmen universe is so fully realized, I really can’t understand changing it (OR this project is under such scrutiny, I can’t understand letting these things slip).

      • Everything we know about their history is contained in one book we’ve all read a bazillion times. There’s not much to know, but I’ve been over it enough to know it well.

        • Well, now I’ve got to go back and see. Do they call Adrian the smartest man in the world or is he just known to be successful in business? If it’s the former, then I have to back up my boy Drew.

        • I think that Adrian may assume that he is the smartest man in the world. Like his ego is such that it refers to himself as the smartest.

        • Upon investigation: “Not for the person the financial rags are calling the Smartest Person in the World.” That’s Adrian talking about his own success. Maybe it’s possible that one financial magazine called him that once and he liked the idea of branding himself as such?

  5. I wasn’t thrilled with this issue, but that may be its origin story nature. Or its overuse of narration. Or the fact that this revealed Veidt to be the hardest Wathcmen character to write for (I’m holding out hope for the Dr. Manhattan series to nail it, but at least there the writers can rely on time-funkiness). These all seem like related problems to me, so I think future issues should be stronger as they start to focus on Veidt’s interactions with other characters, and less on Veidt’s internal monologue.

    • Don’t hold your breath for Doc Manhattan; it’s the same writer as Nite Owl.

      I think you’re right, though, about interactions with others hopefully creating stronger issues. This part of Veidt’s story is very much about isolation. Personally, I think the art is good enough to carry what is only a mediocre story, but only for now.

      • Yeah, the art here really is fantastic. It’s got this wonderful illustration quality, but with this moody dark undercurrent. It’s a bizarre combination that works incredibly well.

        • Shelby and I were chatting about how the art basically justifies the existence of this series. We’re expecting to see some narrative fireworks in the Before Watchmen event because that’s what Watchmen is so well-known for: having an inscrutable story and characters. And while I’d like to see a book that does both, I’m almost too dazzled by the artwork to care.

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