Before Watchmen – Comedian 2

Today, Shelby and Drew are discussing Comedian 2, originally released July 25th, 2012. Comedian is part of DC’s Before Watchmen prequel series. Click here for complete Before Watchmen coverage (including release dates).

Shelby: History has never been my favorite subject. There’s something about it that just flows through my brain like water, I can’t seem to retain any of it. I have tried so many times to read Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, with zero success; I know I should read it, but it just reads too much like a history book for me to enjoy it. Comedian 1 was housed in American history, in a way I thought was a clever subversion of both Watchmen history and American history. I’ve had a lot of trouble getting into the second issue, however, and I think Brian Azzarello may have crossed the line into too much history for me to enjoy.

The issue opens with Eddie and Bobby Kennedy at a boxing match. They’re having a somewhat stilted conversation about Bobby’s future political plans when Eddie drops the bomb (pun intended) that he’s being sent to Vietnam as an “adviser.” Eddie lands in Vietnam in full Comedian garb to find a bunch of miserable soldiers who hate everything. He runs around killing people for a while (and having a damn fine time), and then gets filled in on the situation. Since the government isn’t giving their men the resources they need, they’ve been funding the war effort by smuggling drugs back to America. The discussion is interrupted by news that hostile vessels have fired on U.S. destroyers in international waters. Eddie is psyched about a chance to blow some shit up, and the issue closes with American retaliation.

Can I just tell you, I have no idea if that summary is accurate. Embarrassing admission time: I don’t get this comic. I know nothing about the Vietnam conflict, and have no way to find the fiction in the history being presented. Correction: I know enough about the nature of the Vietnam War to believe potentially anything in this story. I worry Azz has gone too far into the realm of history in his historical fiction retelling of the Comedian for me to enjoy it.

That’s not to say there aren’t some great moments in this book, many owed to J.G. Jones’ art. He continues to impress me with his drawings of historical figures. Did you notice this sweet little gem in the background as Bobby and Eddie are gabbing at the fight?

Yep, that looks to me like Muhammad Ali knocking out Sonny Liston to become heavy-weight champion. That’s one of the most recognizable sports photos out there, serving as background to the scene. That’s cheeky, and I love it. Jones also does a great job with mood and tension. I love one of the pages of Eddie and the soldiers in the jungle as they search for enemy Viet Cong. Eddie’s just launched a flare to light up the enemy, and Jones draws one skinny panel showing just his eyes in his Comedian domino mask, watching the jungle.

There’s something about that inset panel of Eddie’s eyes. He’s acting in a very calculating manner, but that shot on his eyes humanizes him again. It humanizes him, but it also somehow makes it more terrible, to see a person acting as cold as he is. Those aren’t eyes of compassion, those are eyes to count the bodies to make sure he got them all. There’s something really haunting about it; I can’t put my finger on it completely, but I know I really like it.

I don’t know, I’m on the fence about this issue. I’m pretty sure it’s good, but I don’t much care for it. Or maybe it’s actually not good, and I also don’t care for it. I know the art is good, and I think the scenes Azz has established are good, but it’s not for me. Drew, help me out, what did you think of this issue? Is my biggest problem simply that I don’t know the history well enough to enjoy it?

Drew: I think you’re being to hard on yourself on the history front, Shelby. Historical fiction should never hang its hat on the reader’s ability to distinguish fact from fiction. Hell, I’d say the reason people enjoy historical fiction in the first place is precisely because the line between the two is so blurry, so the fact that you don’t know isn’t a hinderance — it may even allow you to enjoy it more than a skeptical historian might. That is to say, I don’t think there’s a problem with how much history there might be in these pages, or your ability to detect it. What I think your feeling, though, is a historical approach Azzarello has taken to the writing, which presents events without commenting on them. Under normal circumstances, that might be a telltale sign of reality slipping into the narrative, but here, it adds a level of distance from the events, enhancing the ambiguity inherent in both Eddie’s character and the Vietnam War.

That amount of ambiguity has always made the Vietnam War kind of an icky subject. Seeing the Comedian flourish here adds a level of depth to his character, but that depth is equally ambiguous. The elements Azzarello adds only darkens that ambiguity. In the previous issue, we saw him rearing to break up a narcotics ring, and now we see him funded by a similar ring, so that he might be able to kill more people. The fact that he’s the one spouting the patriotic party lines about wars against communism would be strange if he weren’t using it to justify killing bad guys.

This all gets me thinking about Eddie’s motivations in a way I’ve never really considered. We know him to be a kind of morally dubious nihilist, but I’d never thought to ask why he dons the costume in the first place. Is it simply sadism? He clearly revels in bringing pain, be it to Viet Cong or rioters in New York, and Veidt calls him “practically a Nazi,” but what actually motivated him to fight crime? The Minutemen mini has depicted him as just as bad as the criminals he beats up. The only difference between him and the criminals is that his crimes always have the added element of hurting somebody. I’m having a hard time getting my head around this question, which may be why Azzarello side-stepped the issue altogether, favoring Eddie’s equally difficult-to-understand mid-career.

The thought that Eddie was friends with the Kennedys is strange, because it sets him up on the wrong side of history. That was what the first issue was really all about, but here, Azzarello sharpens it to a point, as Eddie picks not one, but two losing ponies. He assures Bobby he’ll be with him every step of the way, vowing to help him fulfill his brother’s “unfinished business.” And check out how upset Eddie is when Liston goes down:

Maybe he’s just upset to see what should have been an incredible fight end so quickly, but I can’t help but imagine Eddie had some money riding on Liston to win. It’s funny that this is a moment you recognized so easily, Shelby, since this one happens to be a bit apocryphal. Of course we all recognize that scene, which is from the second Ali/Liston fight, which took place in Maine in May of 1965 — after RFK had already won the Senate seat, and a far cry from the Miami Convention Center. Those details fit with the first Ali/Liston fight, which would have made for a much less interesting backdrop. At any rate, the fact that Azzarello is playing fast and loose with the history should relieve you a bit, Shelby. I don’t think we’re meant to pay too much attention to the details.

The idea of Eddie hitching his star to losers is an interesting theme, especially given his entanglement with the Vietnam War. Sure, in the Watchmen universe, the US wins that war, but we can’t help but engage in a little parallel-dramatic-irony in knowing that he’s really on the losing side of that conflict, too. I don’t want to open a can of worms about fate, but it seems Eddie was a loser, and being on the winning side of the Vietnam War was a fluke that would have done all kinds of strange things to his psyche, especially because all of his other failures are so apparent. It almost makes me wonder if he knows he should have been on the losing side of that war, feeding into the kind of nihilism we know him for.

I definitely enjoyed this issue, even as it kind of peters out towards the end. The Vietnam War isn’t my favorite subject, but seeing how it intersects with a character I’m interested in makes me willing to jump in. It’s hard to love a narrative that seems mostly designed to let dense moral questions just hang with no intention of addressing them, but that really just seems part and parcel of a story set during the Vietnam War. Even when I’m not loving this story, its tone is always spot on in its appropriateness for the Comedian. It’s dark and ambiguous, with a twisted gallows humor that eats at the nature of truth and expectations. It’s often uncomfortable, but it’s too smart and well crafted to be considered anything but good.

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?

15 comments on “Before Watchmen – Comedian 2

  1. Your ideas of Eddie being a loser are really interesting, especially considering HOW the US wins the war. Using Doc Manhattan finally gets Eddie the win, but it’s not a win he can understand. Remember how jaded he was in Watchmen when the war was over? Winning at losing is his game, it’s his punchline.

    • The Ali/Liston fight is often cast as age and experience battling a youthful, defiant, new order. I can see Eddie betting on experience, but then it’s kind of weird that he’s buddy-buddy with the Kennedy’s. Sure, they’re pretty institutional, too, but they also rattled their share of cages. I get the impression that Eddie has a genuine affection for Jack and Bobby, but I’m not sure how it fits with his political ideology. That is, I’m assuming he has some kind of ideology beyond pure opportunism.

      • That’s really the question. Is there anything more to the Comedian other than the callous killing machine we see? Does he actually believe in anything?

        I would say no, no he does not. Eddie seems to think it doesn’t matter what you believe; left, right, conservative, liberal, in the end it’s all the same. Once these people are in power, they will be corrupted the same way and make the same mistakes. Instead of just becoming jaded and bitter, he’s decided to take advantage of the system to do what he does best. I wonder what it was that made him so jaded in the first place.

        • “Jaded” makes it sound like he doesn’t care. I think there’s a twisted – but very real way – that Eddie believes in the American Dream. Work hard enough and make the right connections and someday you too will be able to murder people in the jungle to your heart’s content. Casting The Comedian against historical figures like Muhammad Ali or the Kennedys emphasize the grand-scale ambition necessary to be the government sanctioned superhero-soldier he eventually became.

        • I don’t think Eddie doesn’t care, I do think he cares very deeply. I just think he has realized that it doesn’t matter, that nothing changes. He can let it get him down, or he can laugh at it and go stab some V.C.

  2. Ali was also a pretty strong voice of opposition against the war in Viet Nam. He avoided the draft and was famous for saying (I’m paraphrasing and using a racial slur here: please forgive both offenses) “I don’t have any beef with Viet Nam. No Viet Cong’s ever called me a nigger.” I don’t totally know what to make of Eddie cheering against Ali, but it is a thread that connects the fight to the war-scenes later in the issue.

    • I like Drew’s explanation, of Eddie betting on experience instead of youth. I really like Bobby’s comment, “Don’t you know when the fix is in?” Eddie has bet on what may have been the “right choice” to win the fight. Joke’s on him, the game is rigged. It reinforces Eddie’s strategy to play by his own rules, because there’s no use trying to abide by corrupted ones.

      • That Ali/Liston 2 is famously theorized to have been fixed adds another layer of weirdness. It kind of gets at the themes of a loser winning in spite of himself, though it kind of inverts it. Also, who throws a fight so obviously? It must have been real, because it’s too unconvincing as a fake.

      • I still think that’s being a little dismissive of Ali’s role as a voice opposing the war. It’s just really interesting that neither of these guys buy into the national interest in Viet Nam, but their reasoning and reaction are totally different. Ali takes a principled stand: he believes that racial inequality in his own country was a more urgent issue than beating back communism. Eddie likes to be celebrated for violence (which, incidentally can also be said of Ali…), and the general chaos in Viet Nam allows him the freedom to fight and kill without consequence.

        AGAIN – I can’t draw any grand conclusions from these connections, but I love that this title makes me think about that sort of thing.

        • Yeah, that difficulty drawing conclusions is what makes this title so interesting, but it’s also what makes it so frustrating. There are connections here to be teased out, but I don’t know if that gets us any closer to what they mean. I think this title has the biggest Watchmen-like potential for pulling out something in the end that makes sense of all of these connections.

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