Before Watchmen – Dollar Bill

Alternating Currents: Dollar Bill, Drew and ScottToday, Drew and Scott are discussing Dollar Bill, originally released January 30th, 2013. Dollar Bill is part of DC’s Before Watchmen prequel series. Click here for complete Before Watchmen coverage (including release dates).

Drew: Before Watchmen: Minutemen was good. It helped that it was one of the least explicitly fleshed-out corners of the Wathcmen universe, but much credit belongs to the unblinking moral greyness Darwyne Cooke imparted to the series. His warts-and-all approach stayed true to the spirit of the original series, but blended it with the sheen of reverence we hold for our golden-age heroes. He gave us compelling takes on many of the Minutemen, most notably Nite Owl, Mothman, and the Silhouette, creating fully-formed characters from the brief snapshots we see in Watchmen. Minutemen didn’t bother much to explore much of Dollar Bill’s back-story, which is unfortunately the only similarity Dollar Bill has to that series.

William Benjamin Brady was an athletic phenom, but his football career ended with a knee injury in college. With no other marketable skills, William pursues a career in acting, where he also has no marketable skills. Desperate for cash, he answers an ad for the National Bank, where he’s convinced to become Dollar Bill, spokesperson extraordinaire. From there, the issue is essentially a checklist of things we already knew about Dollar Bill: he joins the Minutemen, they botch that fireworks factory mission, and he’s killed when his cape gets caught in the revolving door of the bank. Len Wein even throws some homophobia in there to pay lip service the the limited characterization we saw in Minutemen, but does it with embarrassingly little conviction.

Dollar Bill has feelings

Not only is Bill’s judgement never mentioned before or after, it’s not even consequential to this scene — he negates the sentiment as soon as he expresses it. For fun, here’s my re-write of this scene:

Panel 1: “I really hated Silhouette and everything she stood for.”
Panel 2: “But she was actually a very good person.”
Panel 3: FARTS

This scene serves exactly no purpose, since we’ve never seen any of what he’s talking about. Hell, we never even see Bill and Silhouette interact. He might as well be talking about his childhood dog. Wein picks the absolute worst way to dramatize what could have been an interesting conflict, all so he can cut to the excitement of Bill enjoying a beer by himself.

Part of the problem may be Wein’s decision to tell the whole story in the past-tense. That’s a move that has the potential to offer a propulsive sense of inevitability to the action, but is totally undercut by the fact that we’ve already seen literally every development here before. Instead, Wein’s choice of tense exaggerates the sense that this is simply a poor retelling of Minutemen.The bigger problem stems from Wein failing to identify any actual conflict in his story. Is Bill a bumpkin with country morality, forced to confront his beliefs when he moves to the big city? Is he a convictionless schlub willing to become a corporate shill for a quick buck? Was he taken advantage of by the National Bank? Not only would any of these conflicts made for a more interesting story, they also could have served to elucidate Bill’s character by giving him something to react to. Instead, we’re left with tepid reactions to boring events, which leaves this issue pretty lifeless.That would be a big enough problem in itself, but Wein has the audacity to suggest that Bill will live on in the hearts and minds of his adoring fans.Dollar Bill's LegacyI appreciate the symbolic significance of what Wein is going for with the kid’s dialogue, but I actually think it’s telling that he’s got his facts 100% wrong. The only thing these kids know about Dollar Bill is false, and that’s partially because he was a corporate symbol (imagine all of the fucks the world would give if Ronald McDonald stopped existing), and partially because he doesn’t actually represent anything. “Hey kids! Remember that one time Bill kind-of-sort-of shrugged off his homophobia? Let’s reenact that!” It’s a narrative stretch, but the meta-text — that we would care enough about Dollar Bill to look back on him fondly — is simply incomprehensible. Dollar Bill isn’t even close to being a timeless hero we can all aspire towards. Scott, what did you think? Did you read Minutemen? I know this issue sucked either way, but I suspect that some of the developments might play better if you aren’t familiar with them already. Is this issue as bad as I think it is, or should I start looking for a Dollar Bill costume for you?

Scott: To be fair, it’s gotta be tough to take a guy whose only established trait is his homophobia and try to flesh out a character worthy of his own comic. It’s a sentiment that could easily alienate a huge portion of this series’ audience, so I can appreciate Wein’s attempt to downplay that aspect of Dollar Bill’s personality, but he manages to touch on it just enough to make it seem totally awkward and forced. So Bill doesn’t know any “straight guys” who would wear the Dollar Bill costume? Did they really need to toss that line in? Or maybe this is meant to imply that he does know some gay guys and, further, is aware of what outfits they like. Yeah, I think I’m getting to the root of the issue: Dollar Bill is really a closeted homosexual, a conclusion which is totally supported by the headline of this article that I didn’t read.

Anyway, Drew, you’re right. This issue sucked. Even without having read Minutemen, there wasn’t much to get excited about here. Bill’s about as passionless as can be. I understand he becomes Dollar Bill just to make some cash and not because he has any desire to fight crime, but his real “dreams” don’t seem all that important to him either. He basically decides on a whim that he wants to become a famous actor, which isn’t exactly a unique aspiration. Then, with minimal effort he achieves incredible fame, but still goes to see if he can make it in Hollywood, where he is rejected for the exact reason that the Minutemen want him.

Look, a mouse!

He’s “absolutely crestfallen”? Really? Seems like he gave up pretty easily. And c’mon, what porno casting director would turn away Dollar Bill? “Sorry, you’re too recognizable, but we are trying to cast somebody who looks just like you for this Minutemen-parody we’re doing.” And that’s it for character development. He sticks with the Dollar Bill persona because he couldn’t manage to luck into another gig he liked a little better. Like a true hero.

The best thing about the idea that Dollar Bill’s legacy will live on is that it overlooks the fact that he died in the most humiliating way possible. It’s a little embarrassing to get your coat caught in a door even if no one else notices. Now imagine if instead of your coat getting caught, it’s your stupid cape that you wear around because you’re pretending to be a superhero. And instead of no one noticing, you get shot in the face and you die. I have to think that would tarnish your reputation a little. At least to the point that kids wouldn’t continue to believe that you “cannot be beaten”. If anything, I’d think the other kids would be teasing the kid in the Dollar Bill get-up. It’s a pretty gay costume, after all.

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25 comments on “Before Watchmen – Dollar Bill

  1. It’s weird that he’s typecast as the Dollar Bill, given that his mask is always covering half of his face. I suppose the same thing happened to Adam West, but 1) he appeared in more than just commercials 2) also appeared without his mask on and 3) really only sounds like that. Point is, if the actor who played Ronald McDonald was cast in a movie, I don’t think I would even know.

  2. Well now the good Before Watchmen series has its own shitty Before Before Watchmen. Honestly, this is the most blatant example of re-presenting source material in a much much much more boring way.

  3. HERE’S WHAT CONFUSES ME: By all accounts, it takes more work to draw a comic book than to write it, yes? So even when a story ends up being a lazy lazy lazy retread of events that have occurred in other books, actually executing the book is anything but lazy. Steve Rude may not have done anything revolutionary in this issue, but he sure did draw every fucking page of this thing. So it’s not even like we can just write this off as a lazy cash-in. SOMEONE had to work very hard to get this done (probably several someones). Here — as in all forms of media — I don’t understand how this happens. No one had a story to tell with DB? No one?

      • I want to know why the porno director has a mirror on the ceiling in his office. That’s just like a weird conflation of sexual kinks that doesn’t add up to anything that even remotely makes sense.

        • Let the record show that he has several mirrors on his ceiling, but not a whole mirrored ceiling. I thought that was a clever way to demonstrate that this was a shady studio, even as far as porn studios go. It still doesn’t make any sense, but I liked it.

  4. I appreciated this entry a little more than the rest, it seems. I very much enjoyed Rude’s artwork, but also the touch that he hand-lettered the issue much in the same way Gibbons hand-lettered the original Watchmen. In this case I appreciated Wein’s dated scripting style more than I should due to the generally outdated feel of the book (which chronicles the timeline of a purposely outdated-feeling character). This issue certainly didn’t add anything to the already-limited legacy of Dollar Bill but it does rehash it into a decent, little comicbookization that I appreciate having as an oddity in my collection (much more so than the 6-issue Ozymandias or 4-issue Nite Owl travesties written by Wein). I also feel that the homophobia was a tough thing to handle and that the approach Wein takes should be given a little credit in that he was around for times in America when homophobia was regretably more ingrained into society itself and he dares to show slight sympathy for Dollar Bill in this regard – we see the man who auditioned before him make a homophobic remark about the exact same suit he later will. We also see that he actually cares some for Silhouette in retrospect. I think Wein wanted to show us that there was a kind of groupthink brainwashing goin on at the time and Dollar Bill was the kind of jock that would fit right in with that groupthinking – he wasn’t the kind of independent thinker that endeavored to become a costumed hero on his own but instead it fell in his dimwitted lap. I also think that the scene with the kid dressed up at the end wasn’t quite as bad as you’ve criticized, maybe its because as a kid I absolutely loved B and C-list comic characters just based on how they looked and how little of a concept I had of the iconic in my youth (hell, I’ve been a gigantic Aquaman fan my whole life, so there ya go). I think if one of those heroes had died that would absolutely have cemented them in my brain as a favorite. I don’t mean to criticize your view, particularly since you all agree and I obviously have a minority point of view, just wanted to try and express that I seemed to come out of this book with an entirely different assessment. There were flaws, don’t get me wrong, but I found it to be much more tolerable than most of the other Wein issues and something I might actually pull back out a year or two from now for a read

    • Credit where credit is due: Nite Owl is a JMS Hot Mess(TM). I’m not wild about Wein, but I don’t want to saddle him with that monstrosity.

      All that aside, we WELCOME your criticism of our view, precisely because we all approximately agree. As Patrick has told me time and again, it’s boring when everyone agrees.

      • Ah! I’m losing my shit, I hardly ever miscredit a writer, I just find myself lumping everything that’s not written by Cooke or Azz in one big Bad BW box

    • I’ll agree that a) Steve Rude’s old-timey art (and hand lettering) match the sprawling formless nature of the narrative; and that b) DB’s homophobia is a TRICKY subject to tackle. But I still think that both of those things suffer from Wein not having any kind of perspective on the character.

      If Wein really wanted to side-step the character’s homophobia, I think he could have just not mentioned it at all. As you point out – it would have been extremely common place at the time, so it wouldn’t even be necessary for him to broach the subject. Like, I’m sure DB’s a little bit racist too (if not, A LOT racist), but that doesn’t come up in the story at all. Why bother mentioning it if he doesn’t want to make a statement about it? It’s there because Cooke brought it up – that’s it.

      I love the idea of fumbling to celebrate a 3rd rate hero (I mean, we all love underdog stories, right?), but this felt like we were too often laughing at DB’s expense. And that reads as too cruel to our main character. His whole life is a grim joke with a grim punchline, but the book doesn’t read like that’s the point.

      • Oh I absolutely agree Wein is the weak link in this outing and that his work suffers from a check-the-box approach that connects all of our available facts about DB – he literally added nothing to the outing. I’m just opining that he at the very least didn’t detract so much from the oddball nature of a Dollar Bill one-shot and the pleasantness of Rude’s work that I would consider it a total waste. Like, if Ozymandias was a one-shot at the quality level of its first 2 issues I’d probably have a similar opinion of it based on how terrific Jae Lee’s artwork is – it’s just that when you expand the page count to 6 issues then the writing becomes much more important to the whole affair

        • Hey, we can agree on that: this is appropriately a one-shot. I believe this whole event would have fared better from having a bunch of one-offs – especially if we could have reduceds Ozy to 4 (or even 2) issues. Plus, maybe that way I would have gotten an issue of the Ozymandias and Bubastis Animated Series. (IT’S NOT TOO LATE DC.)

        • I was going to say that, because Ozymandias 5 just told Bubastis’ origin story, they probably wouldn’t give him a solo series, but then again, this issue is just repeating facts we already know, so you never know.

        • That plan would work as damage reduction, but I think the better plan would be to refuse assigning any writers that weren’t absolutely top-notch. I think if they had gone with this approach then they still might have included JMS because editorial absolutely overvalues him, but Wein wouldn’t have been in the conversation. Here’s a fun idea: Assign your dream writers to these projects. We’ll omit Minutemen, Silk Spectre, Rorschach, and Comedian from the exercise since I think the consensus is that those turned out fine.

          Ozymandias – Grant Morrison
          Dr. Manhattan – Warren Ellis
          Nite Owl – Geoff Johns
          Moloch – Brian Azzarello
          Dollar Bill – Garth Ennis

          And as a bonus, because Patricks is making me crave this:

          Bubastis: Paul Dini with art by Bruce Timm

        • Ozymandias – Grant Morrison is basically perfect for this – the series should be too dense to read without getting a headache
          Dr. Manhattan – Ray Fawkes (I’ll only say it a billion more times – One Soul is A TRIP)
          Nite Owl – Bendis or Lemire – someone who can me light but thoughtful – again, I wish the series was more about both Nite Owls and the way their adventures were similar/differnt

          And then, seriously everything else could just be one-offs (including my imaginary Bubastis series) Then all of Mogo or Shelby’s picks would be great.

        • Those are great picks, I am just now reading Fawkes for the first time in JL;D and am extremely happy so far, I will be looking into that One Soul book as soon as I see the opportunity to – thanks for the heads up

      • I could excuse DB’s homophobia as a symptom of his time, and I think it could have been an interesting subject to address. My problem is that an internal monologue where he shrugs off his homophobic beliefs at the least prompting has to be the least interesting way to dramatize the issue. His homophobia is literally only mentioned so it can explicitly not really matter. Dramatically, Silhouette’s death might as well have reminded him of that cheeseburger he had that one time.

        It was really that tin ear for drama that really bugged me about this. It’s frustrating how often Wein comes close enough to an actual conflict only to focus on the blandest non-events (or action sequences we’re already duly familiar with). Wein effectively convinced me that Dollar Bill could have made for an interesting issue, but this just wasn’t it.

  5. Hey, the attorneys that DB meets with are named Dewey Cheetum and Howe. Is that hacky because it’s a tired old joke? Or is it appropriate because it’s hacky? Or is it clever because the names aren’t presented in the correct order?

    • I neglected to mention this precisely because I didn’t know. I’m going with it’s just tired, mostly because I heard that joke every weekend on CarTalk growing up. You know if you’re stealing jokes from CarTalk, they’re overused.

      • On CarTalk, the hackiness of the joke is clearly part of it though (or at the very least, it establishes the pattern that they’re going to continue with a bunch of other punny names).

        Running with Mogo’s perspective, maybe the vaudevillian nature of this joke is supposed to enforce the campy character of this issue. I’d argue that it mostly comes off as distracting.

    • Ha, this slipped past me and I’m not familiar with the joke though it does wreak of old-fashionedness. The history of comedy is an interesting thing. I don’t think it’s particularly clever because it’s out of order if it’s an existing joke, probably Wein’s slight crack at lawyers (ironic considering the history behind why DC retains the Watchmen property at all)

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