Review: Before Watchmen: Minutemen/Silk Spectre deluxe hardcover (DC Comics)

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Whether the Before Watchmen books should exist, disowned as they were by Watchmen creator Alan Moore, is a valid conversation, but one that I find unresolvable. Even if Moore had embraced the books, the result would be the same -- they exist, they're arriving on shelves now, people will read them.

I don't disregard the larger conversation and by all means, feel free to continue to have it if you want in the comments section. My reviews of the Before Watchmen books, however, seek to address the questions that I think I can answer, at least for myself -- accepting as a given the existence of the Before Watchmen books, are they themselves enjoyable reading? Do they expand on or contribute to the story of Watchmen in interesting or useful ways?

For Before Watchmen: Minutemen/Silk Spectre by Darwyn Cooke and then Cooke and Amanda Conner respectively, the answer is "yes." Cooke's Minutemen, especially, is an "untold" Watchmen tale that shines new light on some of the book's background characters and even helps flesh out those in the forefront. Cooke and Conner's Silk Spectre is more uneven, though it's a worthwhile read even if only to see how Conner's art meets the occasion.

[Review contains spoilers]

Minutemen, written and drawn by Cooke, begins with the original Nite Owl Hollis Mason, but Mason is mainly the vessel through which the book touches on the lives of formerly background figures like Silhouette, Mothman, Hooded Justice and Captain Metropolis, and even Sally Jupiter and the Comedian. The Minutemen are barely a team, never actually foiling any real crime, but Cooke offers additional, behind-the-scenes exploits in which Nite Owl, Silhouette, and Mothman team up against child-kidnappers, and for a few pages these three, at least, become the heroes that the Minutemen supposedly aspire to be.

I am familiar with but haven't memorized Watchmen, so I can't say for sure if Mason's attraction to Silhouette is canon or not, but it adheres well to Mason's character; Mason is the best-intentioned of the group but always a step behind, never the leader nor necessarily a very striking hero, and his misguided love for Silhouette, who is gay, is another believable example of Mason coming up just short.

Cooke gives impressive depth to Silhouette Ursula Zandt, who's not more than a shadow, so to speak, in Watchmen; here, Cooke's depiction of Silhouette that includes her harrowing escape from the Nazis and her eventual murder make the character much more vivid. Mothman Byron Lewis, too, appears in Watchmen mainly as a senile old man, but Cooke's depiction of the risks Mothman took launching himself into the air make his later deterioration more understandable.

(Hooded Utilitarian has a more critical take on Minutemen that makes some excellent points and backs them up with images from Watchmen old and new.)

Perhaps one of the central questions of Watchmen is how Sally Jupiter, nearly raped by Comedian Edward Blake, could later return to him and bear his child. Cooke gets a leg up on original Watchmen artist Dave Gibbons, if I may blaspheme, in that Cooke's art makes it clear to me for the first time just how young the Comedian was during his time with the Minutemen, more a belligerent teenager than the fearsome force of nature found in Watchmen's flashbacks. Cooke subsequently shows Blake arriving at a memorial for Silhouette, just back from a traumatic experience at Guadacanal, and running into Sally, who's dealing with her own guilt over Silhouette's death and the fallout from Sally having murdered the villain who himself murdered Silhouette.

The scene is a rare calm moment for the Comedian, who's ever bellicose through the pages of Watchmen. Cooke's simple lines make Blake and Sally both look like children, unprepared for the evils the world has thrown at them. In this way, Cooke demonstrates how the two might be kindred spirits, offering at least one theory for why things later happened the way they did.

The Comedian dies, of course, at the beginning of Watchmen, so his presence is felt more than seen throughout that book. Here, Comedian is like a freight train, shoving events this way and that, as when he tricks Mason into murdering Hooded Justice. Blake also makes a sizable cameo in Silk Spectre, again influencing events from behind the scenes; in both stories, the writers make a smart parallel between Mason and Blake as two sides of the same coin -- both aging heroes, both surrogate fathers to Silk Spectre Laurie Jupiter, both chasing a certain love they never had in their own lives.

The difference between the Minutemen and Silk Spectre stories is that Minutemen manages to tell the story both of these people and of the time period all together -- one is the other -- and still call out to Watchmen with the gridded pages, frequent circles, and so on. Silk Spectre is (probably purposefully) loud where Minutemen is quiet -- the 1960s aesthetic is turned up so high as at times to overtake the story, and the calls to Watchmen are perversely overt -- numerous panels where Laurie resembles Blake, even in his death throes, and perhaps Silk Spectre's prime over-the-top achievement, offering up the origin of Blake's smiley-face pin.

When Silk Spectre loses a bit of its focus -- especially in the second issue with a wild villain plot cooked up by a rogue Frank Sinatra with Ken Kesey and Owsley Stanley making a guest appearance -- the reader can still entertain themselves with Amanda Conner's art, which sheds just a little bit of its cartoony-ness for this miniseries. The characters are still starry-eyed, but Conner plays them a little straighter, less animated or distorted -- see especially Laurie and her housemates -- and it's an appealing shift that serves the story well.

Laurie in Cooke and Conner's story is a far cry from the harried Laurie engaged in an early mid-life crisis in Watchmen -- the two aren't mutually recognizable, nor do they really add up. Silk Spectre is far more an exercise not only in simply exploring 1960s San Francisco, but also in showing where in Laurie lies aspects of the Comedian. I'm not sure that teaches us as much about the character as the Minutemen story does its characters; Silk Spectre is more of a tribute to Watchmen, less related, while Minutemen fills more the bill of a "prequel."

Either way, I think my next reading of Watchmen will be positively affected by having read Before Watchmen: Minutemen/Silk Spectre.

Monday, my review of Before Watchmen: Ozymandias/Crimson Corsair (what I consider the "fourth" Before Watchmen book, but for some reason DC saw fit to release it this week with Minutemen/Silk Spectre) and more.
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9 comments:

  1. excellent review. I like that you tried to remain objective about the material. - steve

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  2. This is the one I'm definitely picking up, just for Cooke and Conner. What I've heard of the others interests me less.

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  3. My thoughts on the entire Before Watchmen saga (having not read any of the books):

    Creators who work for Marvel and D.C. are aware that the work they do for these companies is work for hire. Any work that they do is owned by the company that they are working for. In exchange they are guaranteed a certain amount of compensation. They also get the benefit of working on characters and books that for the most part already have a built in fan base and following, as such they get wider recognition than if they were doing a creator owned book at a smaller company.
    Because it is work for hire the company that owns the characters is allowed to determine everything about those characters before, during and after the creator takes over. A creator is hired to work on the character, but if an editor does not like what the talent hired to work on the character is doing then it is within their rights to ask for changes. It is also the creators right to decide that if the vision that they have is not working with the vision that the editor or company that owns the character has then they can not continue.
    Alan Moore wanted to use preexisting characters from Charlton that D.C. had recently purchased. D.C. wasn't comfortable with that so under a work for hire agreement he created new ones. He signed a contract with certain criteria and it appears that D.C. has followed that criteria. Under that contract the Watchmen characters are owned by D.C. and like any other characters they can do what they want with them. At the end of the day Watchmen is a story that stands on its own by that creative team. Anything that came before or after has to be taken on its own merits. As JMS said in an interview (and I'm paraphrasing) Jack Kirby got a bad deal, Siegel and Shuster gotbad deals..does this mean that people shouldn't read Superman or any of the comics that Kirby created? That is a personal choice based n their own ethics. I choose to buy those comics when the quality is good and choose not to buy them based on when the quality is poor. Kirby was paid for his work and his contractual obligations were filled by the company he worked for. People who came after him were given better deals, but that is what happens in many different forms Babe Ruth didn't make anywhere near what A-Rod does, Charlie Chaplin didn't make what Russell Crowe does, but those people who came before still got paid to play baseball and make movies. The industry changed and the people who came later were able to make better deals for themselves.

    I liken before Watchmen to a movie sequel. The creators who made the first movie had a specific vision for their movie. If the studio owns the rights to the movie then it is within their rights to make a sequel with a completely new creative team. The first creative team may not agree with the choices made by the second creative team, but it is the studio who owns the franchise that gets to make that decision. I will choose to watch the sequel based on it's own merits and quality. I still enjoy the original Star Wars Trilogy, and I take it as its own entity. I choose not to include the prequels in my world and I will choose to watch the sequels based on their own merits.

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    1. But just because something is legal, and within contracts, does that make it right?

      Does it make it right ethically, or even just artistically?

      Is what Alan Moore did with Watchmen (a story with a beginning, middle and end) on a similar level story-wise to the continuous Superman comics that Siegel and Shuster did? Or to Len Wein's continuous Swamp Thing stories? Or is Watchmen maybe a completely different entity, a piece of art that has a purpose which is fulfilled by the time it's over?

      Does the fact that Moore was going to use Charlton characters have any actual relevance to this story, aside from a fascinating behind the scenes tidbit? What matters, how something came to be, or the final result? Just because the origins of something are different than we ended up with, does that discount what we ended up with and what it means?

      Does DC being technically allowed to make Before Watchmen excuse the poor decision making and possible future damage to Watchmen (let's say a new reader in 10 years says "Oh, BEFORE Watchmen! I guess I read this first?", thereby ruining the entire Watchmen book.) Do you want that future person to have a wonderful and inspiring reading experience?

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    2. @Jordan:

      To answer your question: Yes. In this situation it is legal and within contracts and that makes it ethically right. D.C. has not tampered with or changed Watchmen. They continue to print that story as it was published and conceived by Moore and Gibbons. What they have done is expand on the story and characters which were used in that story and to which they own. Elektra was created by Frank Miller and he had a set story that he wanted to tell with that character. He killed the character, and Marvel brought the character back. Marvel owned the character. It isn't a question of ethics. Marvel is in the business of making money. If they can make money off of a property that they own then they are within their rights to do so. The creators are also in it to make money. They are being paid to create stories. If the creators wanted to they could self publish their own comics and keep ownership of their own creations, but their isn't as much money to be made in that. So in exchange for compensation they give up their creations. Then they cry foul when the character(s) they created go in a direction that they might not agree with. I'm sorry but when they accpeted the money for the rights to their creation they gave up any say in what direction that character gets taken in. When you give up your child for adoption you give up the right to have any say in how that child is raised.
      Who says it is poor decision making and who says that it has done any damage to the original? From all reports before Watchmen has been a financial success. I wouldn't be surprised if sales of the original went up. They made a movie out of it that wasn't completely faithful to the original and the movie made money and again probably made sales of the tpb go up. Again D.C. was within thier rights to do so whther Moore and Gibbons agreed or not.
      My point about the original plan to use the Charlton characters is that Moore wanted to use the creations of other people. Were the creators of Blue Beetle or The Question going to be asked their opinion on what direction Moore was going to take their characters? Should they have been? Morally and artistically what if the creator of the Question didn't want him to become a psycho?

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  4. Nikos, this is the rub for me:

    "He signed a contract with certain criteria and it appears that D.C. has followed that criteria."

    Yes, but only by doing something that had NEVER been done before--keeping a comic book in print forever. The rights were supposed to go back to Moore once WATCHMEN went out of print, as all comics did in the 1980s and before. DC broke from precedent and kept reissuing WATCHMEN in various forms permanently, long before there was such thing as a regular market for collected editions. They followed the letter of the contract, sure, but in order to deprive Moore of his rights they had to behave in a way unprecedented in the entire 50-70 year history of the comic book industry. Of course Moore expected the rights would come back to him. He had no reason to expect DC to behave in a way unprecedented in the history of comics. It's legal, but shady and unprecedented. The end result has been that creators refrain from creating their best, original work for Marvel or DC so those imprints repeat the same stuff over and over with slight variations and characters created decades ago. You can't blame them.

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    1. Just because something is unprecedented doesn't make it shady. There is probably a reason that D.C. put that clause in the contract. Moore and Gibbons signed the contract with full knowledge of that clause. If Watchmen had not been a success then I'm sure D.C. would have let it lapse, but it was a success and they were within their rights to take advantage of what was written in the contract. I may sound like I'm not in support of creators rights. That is not true at all. I am a huge believer in creators rights. I hope that creators do refrain from creating their best, original work from D.C. and Marvel so that the creators can get full value for those creations. My issue is with creators who go into work for hire jobs fully aware of what that entails and then complaining after the fact that the characters aren't being used correctly or they don't agree with the direction other creators are taking those characters etc. The creators were compensated for their work, and they were fully aware of what they were signing up for. The company that owns those creations can do whatever they want with those creations. If a creator doesn't want to be in this situation then don't do work for hire.

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  5. Watchmen is such a complete, satisfying story that I've never had any interest in reading more stories set in that universe, even if Moore and Gibbons were involved. That's why, when the prequel rumors started popping up, my initial reaction was apathy. Until they announced the creative teams.

    I mean, look at the artists who worked on these books. Before Dr. Manhattan, when was the last time Adam Hughes drew interiors on anything? And when Darwyn Cooke writes and draws something, you bet I'll give it a read. Same goes for the Azzarello/Bermejo team.

    That said, even the best of these minis (two of which are collected in this volume) fall considerably short of the original series. In my opinion, what makes Watchmen a masterpiece is not its content, but its form. The way Moore meticulously constructed each page down to the background details, with many recurring motifs and captions that take a completely different meaning when juxtaposed with certain images, is something no other writer even tries to replicate. And without those groundbreaking storytelling techniques, these prequels just don't feel like Watchmen to me.

    However, I can't get behind the way some people overreacted to these books. It's not like DC will only sell the original Watchmen as "volume 5" of the series from now on. People can still read it as a stand-alone story and pretend the prequels never happened. Gibbons himself said he only considered BW a tribute to the original series, and maybe it would be better received if DC had labeled it as such, and not as an absolutely canonical project.

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    1. >> In my opinion, what makes Watchmen a masterpiece is not its content, but its form.

      Agreed. When I re-read Watchmen in preparation for reading Before Watchmen, I marveled at how dense the book is, how much history Moore conceived, and how many different genres he works in in the book -- the main comic, Hollis Mason's bio, all the other bios and magazine articles and etc. for the other characters, the Black Freighter comic, and on and on. Before Watchmen has some good moments, but they're all deriving from Watchmen proper -- they're tributes, as you said, not companions or substitutes.

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