'Before Watchmen' an unessential prequel to an essential classic

Before Watchmen: Nite Owl/Dr. Manhattan Courtesy of DC Comics
Before Watchmen: Nite Owl/Dr. Manhattan Courtesy of DC Comics

It's tempting to view the "Before Watchmen" series with the same worldly cynicism that the original "Watchmen" so masterfully applied to the bright-and-tight spandex world of superheroes and villains. After all, one of the best things about the original "Watchmen" story is that, unlike most superhero comic books, it stands alone, requiring neither sequel nor prequel to make sense of it.

For a publisher, however, leaving a beloved franchise like "Watchmen" just lying on the table is money wasted. Thus, "Before Watchmen" was born, a prequel series that shows what Rorshach, Nite Owl and the gang were up to before the present day (which the original "Watchmen" did pretty well on its own, by the way).

"Before Watchmen: Nite Owl/Dr. Manhattan" tells two very different tales, and while neither is likely to upset fans of the original work, little new ground is covered. The end result looks like someone put makeup on Michelangelo's David. It's a little prettier, sure, but sometimes the classics are better left alone.

Famed comic book writer Michael J. Straczynski ("Superman: Earth One") starts off the book by delving into the troubled childhood of Daniel Dreiberg. Dan dreams of becoming the sidekick of the hero Nite Owl and spends every free moment building gadgets to escape his violent home life and impress the masked vigilante. As Dan takes on the mantle of his mentor, we see him struggle with the emotional scars left by his abusive father as well as his rocky partnership with the violent vigilante Rorschach, who disapproves of Dan's interest in a sexy madam who protects her fellow prostitutes under the alias the Twilight Lady.

Andy Kubert provides the line art for the "Nite Owl" half of the book, while his father, the late, great Joe Kubert, handles inking duties. The visuals are effective but never truly impressive, and fans of "Watchmen" will inevitably find themselves comparing the modern (and arguably more generic) look to the original instead of being drawn into the story.

As the everyman of the "Watchmen" universe, Nite Owl is really only interesting when he's paired up with the rough-and-tumble Rorshach or stuttering his way through the sexual advances of the Twilight Lady, but at least the plot of his story moves quickly and will entertain readers who may not be die-hard "Watchmen" fans.

The second half of the book features the nigh-omnipotent Dr. Manhattan getting lost in the time/space continuum, and while it is more conceptually ambitious than the Nite Owl story, it's also frustratingly similar to Manhattan's role in the original "Watchmen" book. Straczynski retreads the character's entire history, hitting all the same beats (watches as an allegory for universal laws; living in the past, present and future simultaneously, etc.) and providing barely any new information that isn't saddled with explanations of quantum physics and parallel universes. Readers are more likely to wonder about the mechanics of Dr. Manhattan's journey through the myriad alternate universes he creates than to actually be interested in the emotional beats those universes are meant to evoke.

Gorgeous art from Adam Hughes is this story's saving grace, with all of the classic characters looking vibrant and crisp and yet still true to form. Hughes and Straczynski also aren't afraid to use a few well-placed layout tricks to illustrate the disorientation and branching narratives that the story requires. A lesser artist could have made a mess of Straczynski's dense, somewhat confusing tale, but clever visual pacing and attractive visuals make Dr. Manhattan's story worth reading.

Less impressive is a two-issue story on Moloch, a campy villain who is driven to magic and murder by his hideous physical appearance. The sad, penitent shell of a former villain is the most interesting form of the character, and that is the form least explored by this forgettable fable.

"Before Watchmen" was damned from the start. Either it would stray too far from the beloved source material and incur the wrath of fans, or it would retread old ground with prettied-up art and hope to milk some more money out of a classic work. Straczynski chooses the lesser of those two evils and gives readers a story that isn't bad by any means, but is simply unnecessary.