So The Comedian started the Vietnam War. Must be Tuesday.
The Comedian #2 is better than the first issue, but then again, it almost had to be. Seeing writer Brian Azzarello having Eddie Blake simpering around the Kennedys and doing things that blithely and utterly flew in the face of some of Alan Moore’s existing story canon were almost more than this old school Comedian fan could bear. This issue improves on the ruins of the first, by getting The Comedian the fuck away from politicians and into the jungle of pre-Gulf of Tonkin Vietnam, allowing the character to show a little more of the savagery and moral ambiguity that we’d come to expect from the original Watchmen.
Of course, it also include’s Azzarello’s apparent burning compulsion to put The Comedian at the center of every major event in American history that has occurred since 1939. In the first issue, it was the death of Marilyn Monroe, and here it’s the Ali-Liston fight and the literal beginning of the Vietnam War. If The Comedian hadn’t been killed in the original Watchmen, I’d be afraid that Azzarello would end issue 6 with Blake at the discovery of the Higgs Boson snarling, “You’re turning into a flake, Doc.” Actually, that’s probably a hasty argument; after that first issue, I’m not yet convinced that Azzarello won’t decide that the murder of The Comedian isn’t really Watchmen canon. But I digress.
This is the issue where The Comedian is finally put into situations that we truly recognize from the original: he’s on the ground in Vietnam, blowing up North Vietnamese Army troop with abandon and generally seemingly having the time of his life. It is the first time that Azzarello has captured even a little of what we true fans of the character enjoy about him: where the troops he’s surrounded with seem content to let the locals take care of a little firefight, Blake takes the direct approach, goes out and lights them up in a truly savage manner – yes, The Comedian would bayonet a guy whose arm has been blown off by a grenade. all with a big smile on his face. That feels right, at least for the character. It’s been the first time probably in the entirety of Before Watchmen that I caught a glimmer of Moore’s Comedian.
But it’s only a glimmer. Because Azzarello then mires the character in a conspiracy to fund the conflict through the traffic of drugs to the States via Air America with the help of a criminal Blake helped to get deported in the past, and then further ups the ante by leading a clandestine attack on the Maddox to get President Johnson to go all in on the war. To be fair, on one hand, I can buy all this. Part of what has always made The Comedian an fascinating character is his moral ambiguity. Even in Moore’s issues, we were shown Blake volunteering for both World War II and Vietnam, and being genuinely suited for the environments, if not loving being there (I defy you to look at David Gibbons’s panel of Blake with the flamethrower in the jungle and not see simple, animal glee). So I can kinda buy Blake taking steps to amp up the conflict to make it more, well, fun for him.
But on the other hand, a larger part of what has made Blake so interesting is that, in the original Watchmen, he was the one who saw, and cut through, all the bullshit. He was the one who, with a simple line or two, could get to the heart of a matter, usually causing as much pain in that revelation as humanly possible. And I do feel that this character trait fits perfectly with the Gulf of Tonkin attack; Blake would be the one to say something like, “Yer not getting enough financial support from Washington to fight this little conflict? Blow up an American ship and see how many zeroes you can fit on yer blank check, you half-measure taking, uncommitted pussy.”
But it doesn’t work for me when it comes to the drug conspiracy. It’s got a lot of moving parts and it entails amping up drug traffic in the U.S. – and considering this issue reestablishes Blake’s love for Bobby Kennedy, who was waging a war on organized crime at the time, it violates Azzarrello’s characterization from just a few pages earlier. Further, even a dope can see how quickly this deal will go from a military fundraiser to the for-profit criminal endeavor that led Mel Gibson to kill Gary Busey in Lethal Weapon, which is precisely the kind of self-delusional bullshit that The Comedian would sneer at and walk away from. The Comedian I know would stand up in this little conspiracy meeting and say something like, “Sure yer gonna use the cash to stop the spread of communism. Lemme guess: yer gonna have a strict ‘No commies’ policy on your private island? Why don’t you go fuck off someplace and let the grown-ups have a thought?”
The art by J. G. Jones is actually an improvement over his work on the last issue. Unlike there, there are no pages with difficult panel layouts in this issue; everything is laid out in a pretty easy-to-follow grid format. His style is realistic, which lends itself well to what has, for now, become a war comic, and his action sequences in battle feel realistic – quick, violent, and bloody. Jones also generally excels at his celebrity interpretations – his Bobby Kennedy looks dead on – but here his Muhammed Ali looks a little off to me, as if for photo reference he used Will Smith in Ali. But what I liked best was his work on the actual Comedian – there are panels here that look like they could have come straight from Gibbons’s original, only with a dulled color palate. If nothing else, Jones makes sure this is a good-looking book.
This is a vast improvement over the first issue, but The Comedian still isn’t entirely working for me. Between the first issue’s screwing around with Marilyn Monroe’s murder and dicking with where The Comedian was during the Kennedy Assassination, and this issue’s retelling of Air America drug traffic and the Gulf of Tonkin incident, it sometimes feels like Azzarello is more interested in telling a History Of The United States From 1963 To 1985 than he his a story about The Comedian. So there are times – many times – where it seems as if he’s shoehorning the character into historical situation rather than servicing the character himself. So while he’s capturing The Comedian’s moral ambiguity well, he’s eschewing other character traits, seemingly in order to put the man in situations Azzarello’s interested in writing about.
Still and all, it is better. It didn’t make me actively angry the way the first issue did, and that’s a start, I guess… but may God help us if Azzarello decides he’s interesting in exploring the rise of porn in the 1970s.