The Comedian Takes a Dark Musical Interlude In the Midst of the Vietnam War

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A funny thing happened on the way to the next Before Watchmen review.

If you’re a longtime reader of Comics Should Be Good, you’ll likely recall that Chad Nevett and I started to review the Before Watchmen comic books as they were being released back in 2012. Before Watchmen, of course, was the controversial event where some of the top writers and artists in the comic book industry did a series of miniseries showing the adventures of the cast of Watchmen in the time before the actual Watchmen series. Hence, you know, “Before Watchmen.” The problem was that the Before Watchmen series were all released super sporadically. It was so bad that they literally added extra series to the project that were finished and published while DC was waiting for some of the other series to be finished. It appears to mostly be an art issue, as part of the project involved getting some of the very best artists in the business, but a lot of the very best artists in the business tend not to do a whole lot of regular sequential work. So there were a lot of delays. There were so many delays that Chad and I fell behind ourselves, as there didn’t seem to be much of a point to do our reviews right away when the comics weren’t being released on time. And let’s be frank, once you’ve started to delay on something like this, it became easy to continue to put off. Life moves on and so on and so forth.

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About two years after we last did the reviews, we tried to wrap them up, but it was hard to get back into things after such a long break, so we didn’t get very far. That was six years ago, but when I began doing reader chats, I offered people a chance to vote on which series to discuss after Secret Wars. One of the options was Infinity Gauntlet and Chad (being a huge Jim Starlin fan) was willing to sit in on that chat had that been the winning series. It wasn’t, but I figured, hey, if Chad was up for doing THAT, maybe he’d be up for finishing this thing up! I asked, he said sure and so here we are, with Before Watchmen: Comedian #4, “Conquistador,” by Brian Azzarello, JG Jones and Alex Sinclair. This was started years ago, so it is done in the more traditional e-mail format. Starting with the next one, it will be in a chat format.

Enjoy!

Chad Nevett: It’s the fall of 1967 and Edward Blake’s got three songs rattling around his head, one of which only appears at the end to provide the title of the issue. Both “I Can See for Miles” by the Who and “Conquistador” by Procol Harum were released in September 1967, but “The Sound of Silence” by Simon and Garfunkel was from two years before that (almost four if you count it’s original pre-remix release). It’s hard not to focus on these three songs as they provide the lead in and lead out of this issue. The way that Azzarello mixes them up is a little startling, throwing together images of an ailed conqueror, a guy who’s figured out his girlfriend has betrayed him, and a song that a lot of people think is about the assassination of JFK. But, “I Can See for Miles” is also a song that possibly inspired Paul McCartney to write/record “Helter Skelter” with the Beatles… And this is an issue that takes place over three different timelines: pre-going out on patrol, going out on patrol/destroying the village, and post-patrol with each song seeminglyrepresenting a different time period.

“The Sound of Silence” is before. Pizza-Face is found dead, Blake is reminded that the goal here isn’t to win the war, it’s to provide the right tone for the various political and economic concerns that The Powers That Be want set, and there’s a sense that he’s living very much in a post-JFK world where all of the idealism that attracted him to the Kennedy brothers is gone. Now, it’s just feeding young men into this giant machine because… he doesn’t even know why. And there’s also an allusion to the idea that Bobby Kennedy will end the war, but do so by pulling out, not winning it. Blake seems to be the only guy who wants the war to end AND to win it. It’s an odd sort of idealism that seems out of place even now despite that being the normal standard for wars up until this point.

“I Can See for Miles” is an angry song, a heavy song, and it’s about the destruction of the village that actually waits until next issue. After the revelations of what the war is really about, he sees the whole thing clearly, but definitely has the “Well, here’s a poke at you / You’re gonna choke on it too / You’re gonna lose that smile” attitude (lyrics that don’t appear in the issue, of course). There’s also a bit of irony, because this is also when he drops acid… before going on patrol…

“Conquistador” is after… he’s the failed conqueror. His own forces want to take him down for what he’s done. He doesn’t get entirely that he’s out of step with the goals here. He knows it, but he doesn’t KNOW IT, you know? It’s also when he’s really starting to learn that he wasn’t really in-step with the Kennedys at all. We’ve had a taste of that already, but it’s more pronounced here with him seeing them as stand-ins for the two CIA guys.

I dunno… have I gone off the rails on this one, Brian?

Brian Cronin: I like your interpretation of the songs matching the three timelines in the book, although I don’t think that was what Azzarello was going for. I think he was just trying to mash up songs to create interesting captions, but also as a symbol of how important popular music was to the soldiers on the ground in Vietnam. A few factors existed that made rock music even more important inVietnam than popular music in other wars. The first is the youth of the average soldier. Upwards of 90 percent (90 percent!) of the active soldiers during Vietnam were under 22 years of age. So right off the bat, rock music was the music of their generation. But moreover, their music was specifically NOT the music of their superiors. In fact, rock music typically could not even be FOUND on the service radio stations over there. If you wanted rock music, you would have to supply it yourself, which is what soldiers would do through the use of the portable cassette player, a luxury most soldiers made a point to spring for as soon as they could (either by buying one on leave or having someone send them one). Vietnam was already an alienating experience for the soldiers there, the fact that their superiors did not want to give them one of the few things that reminded them of home just increased the importance of the music to them.

What I love about the Comedian’s dedication to the war effort is that he so doesn’t give a shit about the war on any sort of moral grounds, he just always dedicates himself fully to whichever cause he is a part of at that moment. So yes, on the one hand, it is fascinatingly naive to see him think that Kennedy’s view of “ending the war” is “end the war by winning it,” but I don’t think he sees the possibility of anything more than his dedication to winning the war. .

Chad Nevett: Azzarello has used music extensively throughout the series, usually to mark the time/place, but also for a more specific purpose. After all, there’s a lot of songs to choose from that make the same point that you mention, but he used these specific ones. Maybe for the purpose of the captions alone and making a mixed up poem out of bits and pieces of the lyrics, but I’m going to continue to read far more into it… because that’s what I do.

It also ties in subtly to the cut up effect that Ozymandias uses with his TV watching, taken from Burroughs… Again: these two characters are more closely tied than either would want to admit. You can even see that connection in the way Blake approaches this: he wants to win the war and will do anything for his side/to save the lives of his people. While Adrian looks at the global picture, there is a similarity in their ‘By any means necessary’ approach to things. Adrian is subtle and broad in his vision/execution, but there is a similar streak running through them. For all Blake seems like a sociopath (and is), there’s an odd morality that keeps popping up. Is it simply dedication to his current cause or something more? After all, we see in Watchmen that Blakesaw what Adrian was doing and didn’t seem to be looking to stop him. Or, wait, am I misremembering that part?

Brian Cronin: There is a great moment where we see that Comedian does take one group of people seriously – those who fight alongside him, as he even does acid because of them.

We know Eddie Blake has a constant need to “fit in,” but do you think that he would be any different as a person if he never was given access to the military, one of the only places where he could “fit in” (although even there, by the end of the issue, he doesn’t fit there either)?

Chad Nevett: Well, he was already that person. After all, he was the Comedian prior to Vietnam. Would he have continued as that persona without the military? I’m not sure, because, for all of his bluster, he seems to have a strong need for authority and operating under some banner of sorts. He couldn’t direct his violent impulses towards crime or anything like that, because there’s no ’cause’ to it. He’s a sociopath and antiauthoritarian in many ways, but also conservative and unable to function entirely outside of the direction of something larger than himself.

Brian Cronin: And we get to see the people who are going to give him a new direction in the next issue.

As an added bonus, Retcon Punch had a great interview with Brian Azzarello about Before Watchmen: Comedian #4 and the use of the music in the issue. Here is what Azzarello had to say:

Retcon Punch: Your use of song lyrics throughout The Comedian miniseries is striking, culminating in issue 4 where you’re cutting together lyrics from three different songs. Can you talk about how you used music in this series, and why you made those choices?

Brian Azzarello: Music is something I thought was really important in the original series, so it was definitely something I wanted to play with. I really didn’t see much room to do it in Rorschach. But Comedian — and the whole era that story was taking place in, the 60s — the music that was being made then was so important and relevant to what was happening in the world at the time. Pop music had meaning. These were songwriters. It’s not like — well, I’m going to sound like an old man — it’s not like the crap you kids are listening to today.

Retcon Punch: Where does the music come from? Is Eddie hearing this music? Is he thinking about this music?

Brian Azzarello: I think it comes from different places. Once, he’s listening to the radio, I know that. And there’s a jukebox, but it’s part of the backdrop, you know? It’s just what’s going on. There’s music playing in that man’s life.

Retcon Punch: Specifically, in issue 4, there’s no diegetic source for the music. Is it something that he’s thinking about during the issue? Is it something you’re applying to the issue to comment on the events? Is it something that he’s maybe thinking about after the events?

Brian Azzarello: I think it is playing, though. It is. It’s playing in different places — different scenes with different music playing. I decided to use the music throughout the entire book just by mixing it up. But yeah, it comments on the story, that’s what I was doing with it.

This time around, I can assure that these reviews will be finished. Just, you know, nearly a decade late.

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