Each week, Big Issues focuses on a newly released comic book issue of significance. This week it’s Before Watchmen: Minutemen #1. Written and drawn by Darwyn Cooke (DC: The New Frontier, Richard Stark’s Parker), it’s the first installment in a controversial series of prequel miniseries to Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen.
Before Watchmen has become an ethical minefield for the easily agitated comics community. Many see the project as a disgrace to Alan Moore’s legacy and a degradation of the source material; others are excited to see new work by Darwyn Cooke, Amanda Conner, Adam Hughes, and the rest of the A-list talent assembled for the seven miniseries titles. I’m not going to discuss the moral issues here (feel free to go wild in comments), beyond stating that the sad truth is that Moore has joined the storied ranks of comic-book creators who got fucked by a contract. Watchmen became a corporate product when DC started selling action figures and posters. It was not only adapted for film, but directed by Zack Snyder, a man who has never been praised for his subtlety and sophistication. The era of Watchmen’s autonomy has passed.
Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen characters began as stand-ins for characters from Charlton Comics, a company that published books starring Captain Atom, The Question, and others. DC has owned the rights to some
Minutemen begins with four widescreen panels, immediately setting it apart from Watchmen by breaking from Moore and Gibbons’ nine-panel page structure. I got the chance to see unlettered copy of the issue’s first pages in April, and was immediately impressed by the elegant flow of the images and the way Cooke establishes so much of the world in just eight panels. That changed when I read the words on the finished pages. The opening line, “You come into this world, and your point of view is narrow,” reads like an undignified dig at Before Watchmen naysayers, and the following overblown narrations didn’t inspire much confidence. Then Hollis Mason says aloud, “This is terrible,” and the disparity between script and art in the opening sequence makes perfect sense. Cooke is still delivering a message to readers, but it’s not an attack, it’s an invitation.
Phil Noto’s lush colors continue to emphasize those distinctions, with Hooded Justice’s gray and red palette giving way to the vivid Technicolor of Sally’s daytime adventures. The green and brown tint of the Comedian’s scene gives the art a queasy quality that matches the character’s sick mind. This is a much more cinematic book than Watchmen, and Cooke understands how visuals can pull just as much weight as the story. The most stunning moment of the issue is the chilling two-page scene that introduces Byron “Mothman” Lewis. It’s a design marvel that shows how panel layout and visual motifs can add immense depth to a script.
For Lewis’ sequence, Cooke brings back the nine-panel grid, but elongates the middle panels to create vertical distance between the top and bottom panels. Lewis’ story is all about being high, whether he’s jumping off a building or doing morphine in his lavish rooftop home, and each panel works to establish that height. The first three panels show a skyscraper viewed from below, beginning the sequence on the ground before taking off. The vertical lines of the building transition into the next three panels, establishing shots of Lewis’ home that continue to draw vertical lines in the home’s architecture and the arrangement of items in the foreground. The next trio of panels reveals Lewis standing on the ledge of his living room, with the first two panels spotlighting the curved wire frame of a hang glider. The horizontal wave of the glider introduces a sense of motion that is absent in the earlier panels, creating an illusion of wind that is carried into the next page.
That sense of dread permeates the story, highlighted by the contrast between the bold superhero action depicted on-panel and the ill omens of Hollis’ narration. The final shot of Nelson “Captain Metropolis” Gardner smoking a stogie in a bubble bath is accompanied by the caption, “Some would say we’ve been paying for those benefits ever since.” Everything is about to fall apart for these characters, and I can’t wait to see how it all comes tumbling down. Minutemen #1 feels like DC’s first major effort to create a piece of art in its post-New 52 climate, and it’s unfortunate that the behind-the-scenes politics will prevent a lot of people from checking out this stunning new work from one of the industry’s best.