Thursday, June 27, 2013
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.