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…And the Superhuman Review – Before Watchmen: Minutemen #1

by  in Comic News Comment

Every week, Chad Nevett and I will be reviewing an issue of Before Watchmen through a discussion of each issue. We begin with Minutemen #1, written and drawn by Darwyn Cooke with colors by Phil Noto.


Enjoy!

Brian Cronin: Have you ever read the Mayfair Sourcebook for Watchmen? It is remarkable how much extra information that they add about the characters. I thought of that when I read Minutemen #1, which reminded me of the sourcebook in how the first issue was mostly an info dump for the various Minutemen characters, but oddly enough, an info dump that rarely went beyond what Alan Moore had already established for the characters. It struck me as strange to do a full issue that was all about introducing you to the characters and then not even adding new insights to the characters (with the notable exception of Mothman).

Darwyn Cooke’s art is as good as ever. He really knows how to nail this specific era by deftly combining the sort of “glory days” feel of the 1940s while still continuing to remind us how gritty the “glory days” really were. A great example of this came in the scene where Nite Owl foils a robbery of an armored truck. In the ensuing melee, at least one of the crooks is killed. It was a strong depiction of how an “actual” Golden Age superhero would have had to have done things.

I thought the framing sequence of Hollis Mason just finishing Under the Hood and looking back on the past in reflection right before he blows the lid on everyone’s secret was a good idea. I also appreciated the notion that Dr. Manhattan’s debut deeply affected Mason’s outlook on life.

All together, as I mentioned, this was too much of an info dump for me to appreciate it as a comic book story, but I have faith that now that this is out of the way, Cooke will move on to meatier things next issue.

Question – the often clunky captions (especially the one for Silhouette – the way her being a lesbian was worked in felt like a lead weight dropped in the middle of a paragraph). Intentionally rough to show that Mason is not the best writer? Or just plain ol’ clunky captions?

Chad Nevett: I haven’t read the Sourcebook, but, reading this issue, I have to say, if I wanted a breakdown of characters like this, I probably would have. It read very much like a sourcebook. No plot, just character bios basically. An underwhelming start to this whole project to say the least. DC would have been better served by publishing their own little guide to the world of Watchmen last week; character bios, a summary of the series, etc. so we didn’t have to waste an entire issue introducing characters like that.

What’s funny is that, as the start of almost any other series, this would merely be a mediocre first issue, but, because it’s the first comic we’ve seen of this particularly project, it’s especially disappointing to me. THIS is the first thing that DC wants to put out to show off how awesome the whole Before Watchmen project is going to be? This Watchmen Who’s Who disguised as a comic book? It’s a little puzzling, honestly — and something I’ve long seen as a problem with first issues of comics in general.

Your questions about the narration touch on something that I found funny: the book opens with narration that is immediately dismissed by Mason as bad writing. And he’s not wrong. So… why begin the comic with it? Why in the world would you begin with writing that you then dismiss as poor? That makes no sense to me. It really doesn’t. It’s also further ‘What is DC thinking with this?’ fodder.

There’s been some discussion online about the captions and if they’re excerpts from the book (which we’ve read part of in Watchmen) or merely Mason’s internal narration. It’s hard to say, because there are elements of both. The clunky ways facts are introduced feels more like writing for the book, but what we also get differs from the book. Which is something that I don’t find too problematic, honestly. One of the best parts of this issue was Cooke’s expansion on Mothman’s character. Being too reliant on what little we saw in Watchmen could be damaging to a series like this, so I don’t mind any little departures Cooke takes.

Although, I have to wonder: the way he alters Mothman — does that take away from what Moore and Gibbons did with the character originally? He was meant to be an example of the effects of this lifestyle. And, while he still is, portraying what he had to do as so much more dangerous than everyone else lessens that for me. It makes his sanity something like a noble sacrifice made to save lives instead of a warning of how dangerous that life is. I guess it’s a difference of emphasis, but an important one.

BC: It does seem odd, in the sense that if you EVER had a comic book that didn’t need to have the material re-visited in the comic itself it would be Watchmen. It is only the most popular comic book there is! The year the movie came out, the Watchmen trade sold more copies than nearly every individual comic book series and it was $20 compared to $3! And, obviously, this is specifically a prequel TO Watchmen. Who is reading a prequel to Watchmen that isn’t familiar with, you know, Watchmen?!?! It makes no sense.

Really, Cooke should have done each character like he did Mothman. Yes, it definitely clashed with how Mothman was handled in the actual Watchmen series, but Cooke can’t concern himself with that. Take some risks. This overly respectful approach is silly. It reminds me a bit of the difference between Cooke’s first Parker adaptation and his superior second adaptation. The first one was good but it was almost TOO respectful. On the second one, Cooke really cut loose and tried different things and it resulted in a much better book. He should be doing that here, too.

As for whether the Mothman change was a good one. I think we had enough examples in Watchmen of characters paying the price for being heroes that it is fair enough to show one who paid the price in a different fashion.

We haven’t mentioned the back-up. If you came across that two-pager in, say, Dark Horse Presents, would you be interested in seeing more?

CN: The different emphasis also relates to the different time periods shown as well. We saw Mothman from Laurie perspective after he’d gone insane — or, mostly, through one-line references. He wasn’t much more than a punchline and, yet, he was a member of the team and someone the others respected and were fond of. If he was simply a joke, he couldn’t have produced those reactions in the other Minutemen. If anything, Cooke is demonstrating how limited that one story is, at least with this character. Even what Cooke does with Silhouette gives her a bit more depth and rounds her out. I wasn’t the sort of person who was demanding more of these characters, but it is nice to see something being added to them. It may conflict with the tone of Watchmen, but not necessarily the facts presented there. If there’s one thing I liked about this comic, it’s that and, like you said about the Parker books, I hope Cooke keeps it up. Stay true to the source material in that you don’t contradict the events it showed, but feel free to add to the basic skeleton of characters and also shoot for a different feeling. Watchmen was so emersed in the mood of the time it was written in that seeing it from a different perspective is, honestly, interesting.

I discussed the back-up a little over in Alec Berry’s Spandexless Reads columns and it was good. It introduced the main character and offered a bit of action, while giving John Higgins a chance to remind us that he’s a damn good artist. I’m definitely interested in seeing what this turns out to be and how it’s told in two-page chapters. That part alone intrigues me, because it’s so different from most North American comics.

A question I posed in that Spandexless Reads piece was: do people consider “The Curse of the Crimson Corsair” unethical in the same way they consider Before Watchmen unethical? I haven’t seen much discussion about the strip and how it has only the most tenuous of ties to Watchmen. I guess that also raises an issue we haven’t discussed yet: the ethics of this project. Obviously, we’re both buying and reading these comics, so we don’t have a problem with them in that regard (or we’re hypocrites). My take on the issue is that I don’t see it as DC stealing anything; Moore and Gibbons signed a contract and, while the results weren’t what they expected, they were what was in the contract. That may seem heartless, but it’s how I tend to view things like this. How about you?

BC: Higgins’ art was excellent. I agree that it was a strong start to what will hopefully be a good pirate comic yarn (there are not too many of those these days). As for the lack of reaction to the Pirate story, I think it is just that the other characters are so famous that they get the bulk of the reactions. For instance, Brett Lawrie was in a mall the other day when a guy started shooting people in the food court. If Yan Gomes was in the mall with him, do you think the headlines would have been “Two Blue Jay players in mall during mall shooting” or do you think it would still be “Brett Lawrie in mall during mall shooting”? I think it would be the latter. Similarly, Rorschach and his ilk are going to get much more reaction than the pirate stuff.

As for the ethics of the project, I don’t think ethical concerns play into our review of the book. We’re not condoning or condemning it by reviewing it. I think everyone can make their own call as to whether they feel the book is a violation of their own personal ethics. We’re just here to say if the comic was good or not.

CN: Lovely sidestep there, man.

I think the only thing we haven’t touched on really is the art. Did you find it a little strange to see these characters drawn by Cooke? It surprised me a little how strange I found it, especially when the Comedian got his little spotlight. I never thought that Gibbons had so defined these characters and their looks that simply seeing them in a comic by another artist would shock me. After all, we’re used to seeing characters drawn by dozens of different artists. That’s comics. Yet, it knocked me for a loop a little. I like Cooke’s art, but getting past that shift in visuals (and Cooke is about as big a shift as you can find from Gibbons in many respects) took some doing. It was, specifically, seeing a sequential visualisation of these characters. I’ve seen pin-ups and other standalone drawings of the characters. Seeing them ‘in motion’ is something different. That reaction was the most surprising thing about the comic for me. It’s not often I surprise myself like that.