Eye on Comics

Comics criticism and commentary from Don MacPherson

Pass This Buck

Posted by Don MacPherson on March 2nd, 2013

Variant coverVariant coverBefore Watchmen: Dollar Bill #1 one-shot
“I Want To Be In Pictures”
Writer: Len Wein
Artist/Letters: Steve Rude
Colors: Glen Whitmore
Cover artists: Rude (regular) – Darwyn Cooke/Jim Lee & Scott Williams (variants)
Editor: Mark Chiarello
Publisher: DC Comics
Price: $3.99 US

Despite the controversy stemming from the publication of Watchmen prequel/spinoff comics against the wishes of writer Alan Moore, the Before Watchmen line has performed pretty well for DC, not only in terms of sales. Creatively, while there were some weak spots, the storytelling overall has been strong — not surprisingly, given the talent of the top-tier list of talent recruited to participate. Unfortunately, Dollar Bill can’t be counted among the storytelling successes of the line. Writer Len Wein and artist Steve Rude have taken a character meant to represent corporate manipulation of America and tried to use him to tell a straightforward super-hero origin story. This was an ill-advised course of action, and the fact this one-shot was announced after the initial success of the BW line, I’m left with the distinct impression this was little more than a rushed effort to cash in further on the publishing initiative. Dollar Bill serves as the strongest argument for critics opposed to Before Watchmen.

Bill Brady should have had it made. Though not much in the brains department, he was a stellar high school and college athlete who was pretty much guaranteed fame and fortune in professional sport — until a knee injury robbed him of that future. Left with only his good looks, he tried his hand at acting, but the only gig he was able to land was a corporate spokesman for a national bank chain that was seeking to capitalize on the emerging trend of costumed vigilantes. Branded as Dollar Bill, Brady pretends to thwart crime at his employers’ banks, only to be pushed into a life of real danger when he’s encouraged to join the Minutemen. Spoiler alert: it’s not going to end well.

The old-school energy and charm that Steve Rude brings to the book with his classic take on super-hero genre artwork are thoroughly enjoyable. One can see the influence of Silver Age masters (notably Steve Ditko’s) shine through in his style, but it exhibits nevertheless the Dude’s own distinct look. At times, his work here reminded of the style of Mike (Madman) Allred, especially in the facial features and body language of some of the characters. It’s unfortunate Rude takes obvious cues from the tone of the script, as the man behind the mask of Dollar Bill seems like a regular joe. I think a vacant phoney look should’ve been plastered on the character’s face throughout the story, but then, that’s more of a criticism of the story rather than the art.

Where the book and Rude falter visually is with the lettering. Rude is credited as the letterer and as the artist, and he’s clearly taken a similarly old-school approach to both tasks. Unfortunately, his skills as a letterer don’t meet the standards of his line art. The lettering is inconsistent, obtrusive and even borderline crude at times. It’s quite distracting and even jarring. Conversely, it was a pleasure to see the work of colorist Glen Whitmore again, who was a staple of DC super-hero comics in the 1990s. I enjoyed the soft pastel tones he employed throughout this comic book.

Brady is a typical all-American guy… too typical, really. The star jock felled by an injury just as he’s on the cusp of success feels far too familiar, but perhaps what’s weakest about the character aren’t the clich├ęs Wein includes but rather what he leaves out. There’s no sense of anything driving this man. Even when things are going right for him, he seems to just go through the paces of his life. Nothing, aside from the occasional rush of adrenaline, gets his blood pumping, stirs up any passion. Even his flaws (such as his judgmental perspective of the Silhouette) are tempered. There’s nothing in particular to like or hate about Bill Brady.

Dollar Bill was always meant as a joke, and his death, brought about by the unwieldy nature of a cape, reinforces that concept. He was intended as an indictment of corporate America and as an example of why super-heroes as a real concept don’t really work. Here, Wein tries to humanize the joke, but the result is a one-dimensional character with little in the way of charisma or appeal. And in the process, the joke is lost. As the original editor on Watchmen, I would have expected him to get and appreciate the joke, but in retelling it on his own, he gets it completely wrong. 3/10

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