Watchmen #1-3 and Before Watchmen: Minutemen/Silk Spectre

Watchmen #1-3 and Before Watchmen: Minutemen/Silk Spectre

Back Issues is a feature discussing collected comics series in the hopes that A.V. Club regulars will read along with us and participate in a group discussion of each major arc. This week: part one, Watchmen #1-3 and Before Watchmen: Minutemen/Silk Spectre. 

Watchmen #1-3 summary: The Comedian is dead. When Edward “The Comedian” Blake falls to his death from his high-rise apartment, New York’s last remaining costumed vigilante, Rorschach, suspects a malevolent plot to rid the world of its superheroes and begins his investigation. He interrogates former partner Dan “Nite Owl II” Dreiburg, corporate sellout Adrian “Ozymandias” Veidt, and couple Jon “Dr. Manhattan” Osterman and Laurie “Silk Spectre” Juspeczyk, whose relationship is on rocky ground as the godlike Jon becomes further distanced from humanity. While Blake is being buried, Laurie visits her mother and former Silk Spectre, Sally Jupiter, whom Blake tried to rape when they were both members of the World War II-era superteam The Minutemen. Blake’s former colleagues present at his funeral reminisce about key moments with the deceased before Rorschach continues his investigation, uncovering new information when he visits old Minutemen foe Moloch. Dan and Laurie are pulled back into the crime-fighting lifestyle while sparking a romantic connection, and Dr. Manhattan goes into self-imposed exile when he’s blamed for causing the cancer of former acquaintances on live television. Also included: excerpts from Hollis Mason’s book Under The Hood and a boy reads a pirate comic.

Before Watchmen: Minutemen/Silk Spectre summary: The history of the world’s first superhero team is told in Darywn Cooke’s Minutemen, revealing the group’s past as Hollis Mason prepares to publish Under The Hood. The series further explores Silk Spectre I and The Comedian’s continued affair after the attempted rape, the S&M relationship between Captain Metropolis and Hooded Justice, and the lesbianism that ultimately costs Silhouette her life. The overarching narrative follows Nite Owl I as he investigates a string of child kidnappings, a case he inherits from the deceased Silhouette. Nite Owl kills Hooded Justice when The Comedian indicates that’s who is responsible for the abductions, fulfilling the promise The Comedian made when his former teammate interrupted his sexual assault of Silk Spectre.

In Silk Spectre, writer Darwyn Cooke teams with artist Amanda Conner to detail the adolescent years of Laurie Juspeczyk, starting with her turbulent home life before taking her to San Francisco and putting her in the middle of the hippie revolution. Adhering to the nine-panel structure of Watchmen, the series primarily focuses on Laurie’s relationship with her mother, who is grooming Laurie to take her place as a superhero. This training comes in handy when a San Francisco gang puts a dangerous new drug on the streets, but as Laurie is living the life of a costumed crime fighter, her father, The Comedian, is giving her boyfriend the option of going to Vietnam or death by lethal injection. With her lover shipped overseas, Laurie returns home to take on the mantle of Silk Spectre, ending the series with her seated next to future husband Dr. Manhattan at the first meeting of the Crimebusters.

Oliver Sava: Watchmen begins with a smiley face in a pool of blood.

That image of something so iconic, simple, and naïve surrounded by human mess sets the tone for the next 12 issues: a bleak, cynical look at superheroes, which was a groundbreaking idea in the late ’80s. Watchmen brings the dark side of the childish costumed vigilante fantasy to light in a way that imbues a stronger sense of reality on the story than most superhero comics of its time, amplified by the real-world politics of Moore’s script. Moore and artist Dave Gibbons aren’t interested in glorifying the disguises these people put on, choosing instead to examine the cultural circumstances that sparked a need for these extraordinary figures and the personal trauma each hero has experienced as a result of that lifestyle. In other words, it’s what’s inside that counts, and in the case of Edward “The Comedian” Blake, his inside is the bloody smiley face that begins a comic book masterpiece.

Watchmen is often praised for its narrative content, but each time I revisit the series, the story doesn’t have as much impact as the structure. The nine-panel grid employed by Moore and Gibbons not only makes each page incredibly dense, it creates a steady rhythm for the book that undergoes slight variations at key moments. The nine-panel grid sets the time signature for the story, which mimics the 9/8 time signature of Wagner’s “The Ride Of The Valkyries,” a tune associated with dread and death in the Under The Hood text section at the end of #1. Just as that song’s time signature is structured around three sets of eighth-note triplets, a page in Watchmen is structured around three rows of three panels. The first page of #1 uses six panels to zoom out from the bloody smiley face on the cover, then uses the entire bottom row for one larger image to capture the full depth of The Comedian’s death drop. Two pages later, that same layout is used when police officers are investigating the murder, with the bottom row showing Blake getting thrown out the window to fall the distance shown earlier. The book is filled with those types of connections between structure and content, most notably in the Rorschach-centric #6. 

Genevieve, as someone who is more familiar with creator-owned comics rather than superhero books, how does the opening of Watchmen play with your perceptions of the genre? What do you make of the book’s broken narrator, Rorschach, and his grim journal entries about dog carcasses and prostitute landlords? 

Genevieve Koski: How does the opening play with my perceptions of the superhero genre? Well, it certainly doesn’t call to mind the time signature of “Ride Of The Valkyries,” you big show-off. But as you say, I’m not very well-versed in superhero stories, therefore I don’t have much in the way of perception to be played with here. In fact, Watchmen was one of the very first comics I ever read, so in many ways it helped form my opinion of the superhero genre—which might be why I haven’t read many superhero comics since. That’s probably a whole different essay, though.

But you’ve already touched on what I find to be the most impactful aspect of Watchmen. Back when I first read it, and upon re-reading it now, what stuck out to me wasn’t the (sometimes literal) deconstruction of the superhero, or how it’s a comic about comics; it was the style of the thing. From the first page, an eight-panel zoom-out from that button, Watchmen is so damn cinematic, it’s no wonder the book’s film rights were bought before it even hit the streets—nor that the director who eventually ushered it to the big screen more than two decades later is one known for having, some might say, a surplus of style. Gibbons’ artwork is so detailed and so precise, down to every angle, every newspaper headline, every slightly shifted pattern on Rorschach’s mask, that reading Watchmen is almost like watching a film (with subtitles) slowly unspool. 

But all that rich world-building wouldn’t be worth very much—or warranted—without a similarly rich narrative. After this, my second reading, I still feel I’m only maybe 60 percent tuned into everything that’s happening in Watchmen; the supplementary materials between issues, like the Under The Hood excerpts that accompany these three chapters, help fill in the image further—as do the two Before Watchmen stories we’ll also discuss throughout this entry, Minutemen and Silk Spectre. But reading Watchmen is like putting together a puzzle only to have its pieces grow exponentially more numerous as you assemble them. To an extent, this is true of most worthwhile art, but Watchmen in particular has the feeling of expanding outward as it’s being read. It’s no wonder DC felt compelled to keep providing new puzzle pieces in the form of Before Watchmen, in spite of the objections of fans and creators; like the streets Rorschach prowls at night, there are innumerable avenues, corners, and dark alleys to follow Watchmen through, and we could get caught up and lost exploring any one of them. 

So in the interest of staying on topic, I’ll return to your initial question about Rorschach, a suitably enigmatic figure to usher us into this labyrinth of a comic. It’s also fitting on a more concrete, thematic level that Rorschach investigating The Comedian’s death is the instigating incident in Watchmen. The two figures are linked, not just because they both continued operating (one sanctioned, one not) as vigilantes after the Keene Act of 1977 outlawed superheroes, but also because of their shared inclinations toward violence and moral absolutes. We won’t really discover the specifics of or stories behind these characters until later chapters, but their paired introduction feels very significant—as does the pairing that closes the chapter, in another eight-panel zoom out over the city: Dan and Laurie, the two characters who have made the strongest efforts to put their costumed pasts behind them (or in Dan’s case, underneath him, in his basement garage). And the remaining two characters, those who will end up having the biggest effect on this narrative’s genesis and conclusion, are introduced in close succession to each other, literally towering over the rest of the characters: Adrian Veidt, né Ozymandias, looking down on the streets Rorschach stalks from the top of Veidt tower, and Dr. Manhattan, looming over two-thirds of the page in all his big, blue, naked glory. 

Oliver, being that you highlight the “human mess” that defines Watchmen’s superhero narrative, I’d like to set aside those towering figures for the time being and talk about the most human of these messes first: Nite Owl and Silk Spectre (both iterations)—who both happen to be the POV characters of the two Before Watchmen titles we’ll be discussing throughout this piece. In many ways, they are least extraordinary of the Minutemen/Crimebusters, but this story could not function as it does without them. What is it you think makes these two characters such an integral part of this world, in both their past and present iterations? Why should we care about the dork in the owl suit and whiney girl when we’ve got the big blue guy over there?

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OS: The answer to that is simple: contrast. Without the characters that are trying to achieve a life of normalcy, the actions of those more extreme figures wouldn’t be nearly as impactful. It’s important that Moore and Gibbons sell the idea that this is a world where superheroes are a thing of the past, both in reality and fiction. The Keene Act made costumed vigilantism illegal, and even superhero comic books have fallen out of fashion, replaced by exceedingly bleak pirate comics. Looking at the characters in Marvel versus DC terms—where Marvel characters are human and vulnerable and DC’s are godlike and idealized—the Nite Owls and Silk Spectres provide a down-to-earth Marvel perspective while Dr. Manhattan and Ozymandias watch from their DC pedestals. Rorschach is the middle ground, a character without any sort of superhuman abilities but whose mind has been damaged to the extent that he now views himself as someone above the laws of man.

Those scenes of Hollis and Dan reminiscing over coffee or Sally and Laurie bickering while The Comedian is being buried not only show us how the superhero experience has affected their civilian lives, but also how memory tends to muddle the negative aspects of the past. Sally and Hollis look back at their Minutemen days with reverence, but the flashbacks show us that life was just as fucked up for them, only with more colorful costumes. Nite Owl and Silk Spectre are also the only legacy heroes in the cast, which serves a variety of purposes. It allows Moore and Gibbons to look at different eras of the same hero and how that influences their costuming, superhero mission, and general worldview; the shift from Hollis to Dan and Sally to Laurie is huge. The Watchmen characters are all analogs of established Charlton Comics characters, and like his Charlton counterpart Blue Beetle, Nite Owl transitions from a bombastic brawler to a more technologically focused hero when Hollis hands over the mantle to Dan. Silk Spectre owes her skimpy costume to Charlton’s Phantom Lady, and although the Phantom Lady identity wasn’t passed down until after Watchmen, Moore uses the two different versions of Silk Spectre to show how the depiction of women has changed in superhero comics. 

It’s very interesting to hear you talk about how Moore and Gibbons pave so many story avenues for further exploration, because one of the major complaints heard after the Before Watchmen titles were announced was that the original work was so self-contained and expansive that there’s no reason to return to it. If there were more to tell about the Minutemen, Moore would have included it in those Under The Hood text segments. Mark Waid briefly spoke about this in his A.V. Club interview last year:

“I always said that comics is all about the economy of storytelling… If you can leave it out, do leave it out. To me, that’s what made Watchmen the quintessential greatest American comic. It’s not the characters, although they are great. It’s not the story structure, although it is great. What to me made Watchmen an exemplar and an absolute textbook is its flawless storytelling. There’s not one single line of dialogue or one single illustration in that graphic novel that is out of place or superfluous to the main narrative.” 

Looking at Alan Moore’s script for the first page of Watchmen #1, there’s an unbelievable amount of thought that goes into every panel. While so much of that labor doesn’t literally appear on the page, the level of diligence at the script stage is why Gibbons’ art has such specificity. Each time I return to Watchmen, new details pop out that show how Moore and Gibbons convey important information without being overly explicit. The tick of the Doomsday Clock is heard with every newspaper headline detailing the growing political strife between the U.S. and Russia, and Hollis and Sally’s sunny perception of their superhero past is emphasized by the way they decorate their homes with memorabilia. 

That specificity is lacking in a lot of the Before Watchmen series, but Minutemen and 

Silk Spectre are the two that come closest to having the same economy as the source material. Minutemen has the advantage of using the Under The Hood excerpts as a blueprint for the story, while Silk Spectre has the nine-panel grid to give the book stronger structural integrity. Silk Spectre artist Amanda Conner has a more cartoonish style than Gibbons, but she does remarkable work taking his skill for cinematic staging and combining with the more animated sensibility of classic romance comics. Minutemen writer/artist Darwyn Cooke adheres to the principles of Golden Age comics to tell a story that has more flair than Watchmen, creating a brighter tone that makes the moments of depravity even more distressing.

Minutemen and Silk Spectre are the only prequels that I feel actually enlighten my reading of the source material, revealing new facets of the characters that may not be what Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons intended, but make sense in the world they’ve created. The major character to be influenced is Laurie, who becomes more tragic each time I return to the series. I never quite understood her place in the narrative when I first read Watchmen, but it’s since become clear that Laurie is there to show what happens when someone is forced into this crazy superhero word from birth and never given the chance to escape. Would you agree with that conclusion, Genevieve? Did the Silk Spectre prequel do anything to change your “whiney girl” impression of Laurie? 

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GK: Oh, I think Laurie becomes much more than a “whiney girl” (a glib turn of phrase I’m already regretting) by the end of Watchmen proper. But Silk Spectre certainly sheds new light on the character; more importantly, it sheds light on the complicated relationship between Laurie and her mother, the first Silk Spectre, Sally Jupiter. A lot of my problem with Laurie in Watchmen is that her bitterness and resentment toward her mother, combined with her bitterness and resentment toward her life with Dr. Manhattan, makes her come off more immature and defensive than I’d personally like to see from one of the two female characters of this narrative. The reasons behind that come more into focus as Watchmen progresses, but only if you’re looking for them; Silk Spectre lays it all out in the foreground.

And that’s what I mean when I say Watchmen opens a lot of avenues for exploration. It’s not that the story is incomplete; that would be a heretical statement regarding a book as finely tuned as Watchmen. I simply mean that the many stories it does tell, often in the background, are rich enough that they can support their own narratives, and the toxic history between Sally and Laurie is one such story. 

The main thing that Silk Spectre brings into focus is Laurie’s truncated adolescence at the hands of her mother, and how that informs her actions once she escapes from under Sally’s thumb. I’m in love with all of Amanda Conner’s art in this book, but I particularly love how she renders Laurie’s fantasy world, which shows her as the star of the different stories she’d much rather be starring in—usually epic romances—than the one her mother has preordained for her. Her rebelliousness and desire to escape out from under her mother’s thumb are a lot more relatable and understandable in the context of a lovesick teenager denied the freedom she craves—that any teenager craves—rather than the bitter 30-year-old we see scowling her way through a visit to her mother in the second chapter of Watchmen. It’s also just… well, sweeter, which is not an adjective anyone would probably apply to Watchmen, but Laurie and Sally’s story in Silk Spectre merits it… eventually.

The two Before Watchmen titles we’re discussing here also do a lot to flesh out and soften the character of Sally Jupiter, whom we mostly see in Watchmen as either a preening pinup or washed-up old lady; the dots connecting the two versions are there for readers to connect if they so choose, but both Minutemen and Silk Spectre actually show how motherhood both hardened and humbled Sally. (Appropriately, much of this view of Sally comes through the eyes of Hollis Mason, Minutemen’s POV character, providing parallel humanizing relationships between the first and second iterations of Nite Owl and Silk Spectre.) Conner’s depiction of a frantic Sally trying to bring her runaway daughter home from the hedonistic hippie heaven of late-’60s San Francisco—first through taunts and threats, then by reaching out to Hollis and “that other son of a bitch” for help—shows the vulnerability underneath the proud exterior she shares with her daughter, which keeps them from connecting over their other shared qualities. 

As mother-daughter stories go, it’s a fairly familiar template, which is probably why Moore kept it as background material for Watchmen. But it’s also a sturdy enough cliché to serve as the foundation for Silk Spectre, which shows how Laurie’s pursuit of fairy-tale love and independence, combined with her conflicted relationship with the vigilante lifestyle she inherited, landed her in that room with the Crimebusters, ogling the big blue guy in the corner and wondering what it would be like to take him home: “I bet that would really, really piss off my mom.” 

That moment, which ends Silk Spectre, is awfully cute, placing it somewhat at odds with the book’s drug-and-orgy-fueled crime narrative—as well as the tragic conclusion to Laurie’s first romance, cruelly administered at the hands of the man we know to be her father, under the orders of her bereaved mother. Connor’s romance-comics aesthetic goes a long way toward playing this off in the context of this book specifically, but it’s still somewhat odd to see such a cute, classically romantic moment in a world as dark and postmodern as that of Watchmen. Minutemen inhabits this sphere a little more comfortably than Silk Spectre, with its in-depth look at the team’s history, suffused by a horrific child-abuse narrative. Oliver, as our resident superhero-history expert, I’ll leave it to you to put these two books into context with Watchmen. Going back to your comparison between the godlike superheroes of DC and Marvel’s more human heroes (in which case, wouldn’t Rorschach be the Vertigo hero of the group?), where does Minutemen fall in that designation? And do you think this story adds anything to the history we get in Watchmen—specifically the Under The Hood segments—or does it exist purely in spinoff-land for you?

OS: You’re completely right about Rorschach as a new kind of Vertigo antihero, and along with other trenchcoat-wearing Vertigo characters like John Constantine and The Sandman’s Dream, Rorschach has had a massive influence on superhero comics that is still felt to this day. Considering that none of the Minutemen have superpowers, I have to put them in the Marvel camp, especially because the prequel series emphasizes each character’s flaws. 

Watchmen is one of the defining books of the modern age of comics, and what I appreciate most about Minutemen and Silk Spectre is the way that both of them apply the Watchmen aesthetic to a different era of comic books. Minutemen’s plot incorporates the darker elements of comics that led to the death of the Golden Age when Fredric Wertham published Seduction Of The Innocent in 1954; Cooke tackles controversial social issues in his script and delivers brutal stylized violence in his art. It’s a strong contrast to the more personal Silk Spectre, a smaller-scale story that covers the transition period between the Silver Age and the Bronze Age. The tone is brighter, but the darkness is still lingering under the surface, waiting until Laurie is older before it makes itself known. 

In terms of fitting into Watchmen chronology, Minutemen and Silk Spectre are the only two series that have strongly inserted themselves into the source material’s timeline when I re-read it. When Hooded Justice stops The Comedian from raping Silk Spectre and is told that one day the joke will be on him, I remember the events of Minutemen and include them as canon. These are the two prequels that do the best job of fleshing out the relationships that Alan Moore establishes in Watchmen, providing some much appreciated character development for Sally, Hollis, and Laurie. 

One major figure of Watchmen that we have yet to discuss is Dr. Manhattan, who has some major moments in #3. There’s a reason that Moore introduces the Black Freighter story in the same issue that Dr. Manhattan exiles himself, maximizing a feeling of dread to let readers know that shit is about to get very real. Now we lucky readers get the story of a world on the brink of nuclear apocalypse and a pirate tale about a shipwrecked man who loses his mind and becomes the very thing he despises. It also foreshadows the isolation that Jon finds himself in at the end of the issue, caused not by bloodthirsty pirates but an attention-seeking news media. Why do you think this story needs a singular godlike being? Is it a matter of providing perspective, or is Moore making a larger statement about the nature of power in the nuclear age?

GK: I’m tempted to answer your first question the same way you answered mine earlier: contrast. All-powerful, human-like immortal beings are as integral a part of the superhero canon as trenchcoated vigilantes, self-styled defenders with an arsenal of gadgets, and all-American war-hero types. The normalcy of the former three makes more impactful the presence of a godlike being. But it’s more than that. By populating his main cast with all different types of superheroes, with different codes of honor and physical abilities, Moore seems to be highlighting the absurdity of the notion that these archetypes would exist in the same world: Who needs a Comedian when you have a Dr. Manhattan? What can Nite Owl make in his garage that’s 10 percent as effective as what Dr. Manhattan can accomplish with a thought and a blink? But as shown through the thematic link between Dr. Manhattan and nuclear weaponry, no tool, no matter how powerful, is without its flaws and dangers; there’s no such thing as an ace in the hole—or if there is, it’s not without severe consequences.

You draw a parallel between the Black Freighter and Dr. Manhattan, which is appropriate given that both are marooned at this point in their stories, in Chapter Three. Both are men apart from the rest of humanity—not just apart from them, above them, both figuratively and literally. (The castaway of Tales Of The Black Freighter sleeps on top of the mass grave he digs; in a later issue, he rides atop their gas-bloated corpses. Dr. Manhattan can physically tower over any human, or he can just blip himself away to a planet high above their heads.) But the two characters are also linked through their survival of traumatic events, and the weight that’s subsequently placed on both their shoulders. There’s a particularly haunting and telling panel early in this chapter, as the newsstand vendor is providing running commentary while the boy, Bernie, reads: The vendor equates selling newspapers to the fate of Atlas, concluding of both, “He’s a survivor.” That last line is the only one in the panel, sharing space with an isolated close-up of the sailor’s face, full of lines and terror. It’s a vulnerable, human reaction, and it comes in the issue where we see the first strong glimpses of Dr. Manhattan’s vulnerable, human side, as he cracks under the pressure of being a god on earth—the result of a trauma we’ll soon learn about in detail—and flees… after making a quick detour to pick up an artifact of his human life.

Like all good meta-stories, though, Tales Of The Black Freighter serves more than one purpose in the main storyline of Watchmen. At this point, it serves to highlight Dr. Manhattan’s unusual place in Watchmen’s version of society—a society where superheroes are a reality, and therefore pirates have displaced them as the main focus of comic-book stories. But there’s much more to say about Black Freighter as both it and the main narrative continue (particularly in relation to Ozymandias), which we’ll have to leave for subsequent rounds of this discussion, as the scene-setting tapers off and the real story of Watchmen begins to unfold. The Comedian’s death was the event that begins Watchmen, but Dr. Manhattan’s exile is the catalyst that kicks it into the next gear. 


Next week: Oliver Sava and Jason Heller tackle Watchmen #4-6 and Before Watchmen: The Comedian/Rorschach, looking at the early moments of Dr. Manhattan’s exile, The Comedian’s place in American history, and Rorschach’s deeply wounded psyche.

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