The first chapter of Before Watchmen suggests the project might transcend the controversy
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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 of Charlton’s characters since the 1980s, so Darwyn Cooke’s Minutemen #1 could have easily been Charlton: The New Frontier if DC had decided to forgo the Watchmen connection. I’m glad they chose to go the more controversial route. People are so caught up with the idea that the prequels will somehow diminish Moore and Gibbons’ work—which they won’t—that they ignore the fact that these new stories could benefit greatly from having a foundation in arguably the greatest comic book ever created. The connection to Watchmen lends Cooke’s story a sense of gravitas, but Minutemen #1 makes a deliberate decision to step out from the shadow of its predecessor.
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.
Cooke tries to mimic Moore’s philosophically complex writing in the opening, and proves that the book would indeed suck if he wrote the entire thing that way. A lot of Moore’s literary sophistication gets lost in the transition, but it’s been replaced with the unique creative energy inherent in a story told by a singular writer/artist. Minutemen #1 serves as an introduction to Watchmen’s Golden Age-inspired superteam, giving each of the eight team members a short sequence that sets a specific tone for their individual stories. The segments start with an image of the hero from a newspaper or magazine (or in the Comedian’s case, a Juvenile Correctional Services card), a clever way of differentiating how the public views each character. Hooded Justice’s police sketch depicts a much more dangerous figure than Sally Jupiter’s cheeky centerfold, and his scene is stark and brutal whereas Sally’s is smooth and sexy.
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.
The camera switches sides for the next three panels, showing Lewis’ face to the reader. Behind him is a windsock, calling back to the glider’s curved shape and now quite literally emphasizing how windy it is at Lewis’ height. The middle row of panels returns to the skyscraper imagery that began the entire sequence; now showing the side of the building from the roof instead of the ground, the elongated middle panels accent the distance of the drop. Lewis doesn’t move during this scene until the final three panels, in which he swigs a bottle of booze, drops it off the roof, then follows the bottle down. The camera avoids directly showing Lewis once he finishes the bottle, as if the man vanishes once the liquor does. When the final panel pulls back to show Byron’s aerial descent, he’s just a nondescript yellow shape that looks a lot like that windsock from earlier. In a perfect closing touch, the last thing the reader sees is the white silhouette of the bottle, moments before it shatters on the sidewalk. How long until Lewis crashes with it?
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.