Reviewing any Before Watchmen book is problematic at best. There is an incredible degree of talent and attention to craft on these books by creators who have transcended genre and industry boundaries to become the leaders in their art, but they’re working on material that is not served by the very idea of a prologue. The truth is, there is nothing to be explored with these characters beyond the pages of Watchmen and to even try is to fail.In retrospect, Before Watchmen was an abject failure, a wrong-minded cash in on a literary masterpiece. Yet, the entire project is a fascinating failure, a meditation in trying to create story where there is none. At best, it’s a wheel-spinning well-constructed character study that adds nothing to the world of Watchmen. At worst, it is a profound waste of time with mind-blowingly awesome art. Either way, all the a-listers involved in these books would have been better served in fleshing out the New 52 instead of shading the lines of the dots Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons already connected.Looking at the Before Watchmen stories by J. Michael Straczynski, a reader will find a very successful writer trying to find something new to say about characters who arrived fully realized in the pages of Watchmen. Straczynski has had a profoundly successful career in film, television, and comics. One can argue that, commercially, Straczynski has achieved greater success than Moore, but in his Before Watchmen tales, Straczynski fails to find new ground for Nite Owl, Dr. Manhattan, or Moloch. Nite OwlArt by Andy Kubert, Joe Kubert, and Bill Sienkiewicz.It’s really difficult to list every place this particular title went wrong. It is all familiar background relayed via flashback in the original Watchmen. Readers will get to see Dan Dreiberg a.k.a Nite Owl’s awful past. They will get to see how he first meets Rorschach, and they will get to see one of his earliest cases in which Nite Owl must find a serial killer who preys on streetwalkers, but none of it brings anything new to the characters. Straczynski weaves Dreiberg’s back story with the eerily similar past of Rorschach. The contrast is effective and makes for an interesting character study on both heroes, but the competent storytelling ends there. If a reader ever wondered about the origin of Rorschach’s “The End if Nigh!” sign, then is this the story for him. That’s the type of trivia this book covers.Before Watchmen: Nite Owl is needlessly mean spirited and bleak almost to the point of self-parody. For example, in Watchmen the use of Rorschach’s dialogue tick of “Hurm” is meant to show how socially clumsy and uncomfortable he is engaging in even simple conversation he is; it is not a catchphrase like “Flame On!” as used here.The most off-putting aspect of Before Watchmen: Nite Owl was the use of women. Straczynski introduces the Twilight Lady, a hooker with a heart of gold who helps Nite Owl catch the serial killer while screwing the hero’s brains out. And yes, Nite Owl falls head over heels in love with her. She runs over rooftops with the titular hero in her heels and serves the story as the angry vagina of justice. Seemingly, the only roles for women in Straczynski’s Before Watchmen are as whores or marginalized and abused women, and in Rorschach’s mom’s case, both. It would be comical if it wasn’t so clumsily misogynistic. By the end, both character’s faiths are questioned as they discover the identity of the killer. Hollis Mason, the original Nite Owl, all but disappears from the story midway through as Straczynski misses a golden opportunity to explore Mason’s past; instead, the writer focuses on sex, violence, and childhood angst. It is a juvenile approach to a story that is desperately trying to be more enlightening than it really is.If one were just to look at the art though, one would be in for treat, as it’s as good as it gets. Sadly, Nite Owl will be the last work of Joe Kubert as he provided finishes for his son, Andy. It is a delight to see the master at work one more time, and even this heavy handed mess can be forgiven a bit because it looks so damn good. The Kuberts’ art has a lived in and used up quality, their figures seem to have the weight of the world on their shoulders, and their work is truly worthy of the name Watchmen.Dr. ManhattanArt by Adam Hughes.For a while, Straczynski puts a better foot forward in his Dr. Manhattan installment, and he seems much more comfortable telling the tale of a massively super powered god than he is trying to bring some humanism to Nite Owl. Straczynski plays with the linear nature of time and tells the story of a world where the good Doctor made different choices than the ones that led him to become Dr. Manhattan. It’s an almost-fascinating tale that uses quantum theory and its experimental nature should be acknowledged and complimented. It adds absolutely nothing to the story Moore and Gibbons already established, but it’s a good try.When Moore related the story of Dr. Manhattan, he had enough respect for the readers that he did not feel that he had to spell everything out for them. Sadly, Straczynski does not have the same respect for his readers. He actually takes time out of his narrative to explain to the reader the concept of Schrodinger’s cat. It is so ponderously clumsy that it takes a well-conceived story and dumbs it down. It was a cool exercise to explore what would happen if Dr. Manhattan followed different paths as new universes are born based on his decisions, but the story feels like it’s a complex narrative written for simpletons. Watchmen never talked down to the reader, it dared the reader to challenge himself and expand his knowledge base. Straczynski does not have that much faith in today’s audience, and this disrespect spoils an otherwise interesting story.Again, the art is the saving grace as this is the work of Adam Hughes’ career. Hughes is usually known for his cheesecake art work, but he pushes the boundaries in Dr. Manhattan to make sense of a non-linear, multi-layered story. Hughes’ layouts are mind-blowingly awesome as he pushes past the boundaries of tradition to tell a story that bends perception.MolochArt by Eduardo Risso.The same disrespect for readers is on display in Mocloch as Straczynski spells out the meaning of the villain’s name, not having enough faith in the readers to find this information for themselves. The motif of magic and crime is used to great effect in this story, but again, women are used as sex objects, constantly and cruelly tempting poor deformed young Moloch into a life of anger and corruption. Moloch is one of those stories where everything that possibly can go bad does, leaving the audience overwhelmed with so many tradgedies that their heart numbs to it.In Watchmen, Moloch was simply a way to show that these heroes had something to fight in the past. He was an archetypical villain relying on the readers’ preconceived ideas of what a comic book villain should be to understand his character. He was never meant to be fleshed out. In doing so, Straczynski tells an empty and pointless tragedy about a poor, pathetic little creature who wants to hurt the world for rejecting him. It’s all been done a thousand times before, but at least this time the same old same old is rendered by the great Eduardo Risso. Seriously, don’t even bother reading it; it’s needlessly depressing and masturbatory. Just look at it and marvel at Risso’s craft.The Watchmen characters are archetypes, they don’t require background explanations or expository lessons on Sumerian myths or quantum theory. The story of Atticus Fitch in law school would not make To Kill a Mockingbird a better book nor does anyone need to see how Lennie and George first met before Of Mice and Men. Even the leading writers of fiction could not make a compelling story out of those ill-conceived ideas. Straczynski was doomed by the concept from the onset, sadly, while failing at a task none could conquer. If you want to see the top artists in the industry beautifully construct an ill-conceived bit of self-indulgence, Before Watchmen is certainly the project for you.Story: 2/10Art: 10/10Overall: 4/10Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter for all news updates related to the world of geek. And Google+, if that’s your thing!