There’s a comic project you might not have heard of before, and it’s “Before Watchmen.”
All kidding aside, though, ever since “Before Watchmen” was announced it’s been hard to not form an opinion about the decision to create these comics that take place before Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ opus. There’s been a lot of talk about the differing opinions of the two creators on these projects (Moore opposing the comics, Gibbons giving them his approval), the original “Watchmen” contract, and almost anything under the sun. After all, until the comics themselves were published, the actual content of the books was the one thing that remained a mystery.
So with the understanding that the discussion on the personal and business aspects on “Before Watchmen” is still legitimate and by no means over, it’s time to start answering that big question that hovered over the project since its announcement. Are the comics any good?
DC Comics chose to lead off with “Before Watchmen: Minutemen” by Darwyn Cooke, which always seemed like a great idea. Cooke’s projects where he’s been a writer/artist, like “DC: The New Frontier” and the “Parker” series of graphic novel adaptations have been fantastic. He’s also shown that he can handle working on a comic closely connected to a specific creator, thanks to his year-long run (with inker J. Bone) on “The Spirit.” And having now read “Before Watchmen: Minutemen” #1, I think it’s safe to say that Cooke is showing us that ability all over again as he channels his inner Moore and Gibbons.
Right off the bat, Cooke demonstrates us his immense storytelling skills. The first two pages of “Before Watchmen: Minutemen” are fairly perfect. Page 1 uses four semi-circles to center each of the panels; a glimpse out of a bassinette, driving out of a tunnel into the city, the sun being orbited by Earth and other planets, and last but not least, the top of Dr. Manhattan’s original helmet, with atom symbol in the center and clock gears all around it. It’s a clever progression, emphasizing Cooke’s narration about how one’s view of the world keeps expanding with time, and how Dr. Manhattan’s arrival blew everyone’s understanding of the universe into pieces. From there, the second page takes that use of circles to show Hollis’ re-centering of his world, post-Dr. Manhattan and it’s just as effective. It’s a quick reminder of what Hollis did after retiring from the superhero life, and it serves as an effective transition to the more traditional storytelling pages that immediately follow.
There’s a certain level of homage in those first two pages to what Moore and Gibbons created in a lot of “Watchmen,” using the same symbols and shapes over and over again, but it feels like a loving understanding of the tool set that Cooke has been given rather than a mimicry or copying of that other work. That’s in part what makes “Before Watchmen: Minutemen” #1 work. We’ve got the little touches throughout the comic that remind us of “Watchmen” itself, but it’s at the same time a strong comic in its own right.
Most of “Before Watchmen: Minutemen” #1 is devoted to Cooke re-introducing all the members of the Minutemen group. Each character only gets a few pages, but thanks to the narration by Hollis, coupled with what we already knew about them, most of the characters feel rich and fleshed out. Some characters get more play than others (Dollar Bill gets the least information so far, while the Silhouette gets more panels here than she did in all of “Watchmen”), but what struck me the most was how Cooke turns the bits of information we did have on the characters into much more. Most notable is Cooke’s exploration of Byron Lewis, aka Mothman; in “Watchmen” we learn that he eventually entered a mental asylum and suffered from alcoholism, but here we see some of the early problems that Byron had. Cooke’s description of how the Mothman outfit worked and what Byron went through every time he used it is fascinating, but more importantly it doesn’t feel tacked on, or like so many other tie-in stories where every single eyelash is explained in great detail. Cooke’s ideas work in a way that I fear some other of the comics might not.
The big fictional star of the comic, though, is Hollis Mason. As narrator, even though he’s not present for a lot of the comic, his voice is through the entire book. It’s a smart choice; not just because we know that in “Watchmen” he wrote his “Under the Hood” manuscript and is a born storyteller, but because of all of the Minutemen he’s the one that came across the most noble under Moore and Gibbons’ hands. That continues here; everyone’s got a different motive for entering the superhero game, but Hollis’s feels the purest. Cooke runs the gamut with the members of the team and seeing the way that he slots them into that spectrum feels right.
As familiar I am with Phil Noto’s comics work, I don’t remember ever seeing him just color a comic rather than draw it too. His strong color sense meshes wonderfully with Cooke’s art. The deep red used in the Hooded Justice sequence, for example, leaps out at the reader in an effective way, without feeling blatant. And then, turning the page, Noto shifts his palette to an entirely different one for the Silk Spectre story. Noto’s colors match the mood set by Cooke’s writing and art, and the end result is impressive.
The book ends with the first two pages of “The Curse of the Crimson Corsair: The Devil in the Deep,” where original editor and colorist Len Wein and John Higgins tell a serialized pirate story, like those seen in “Watchmen.” It’s impressive looking, but at just two pages it’s for the moment not ready for any sort of real scrutiny, or even a strong desire to see more. Once a few chapters are released, reading them all together will probably work much better.
Will “Before Watchmen: Minutemen” #1 change your opinion of the “Before Watchmen” project in general? Probably not. If you’re morally opposed to “Before Watchmen,” this won’t make you feel better about the situation. If you were looking forward to “Before Watchmen,” you’re probably going to feel like you just hit the jackpot.
The “Before Watchmen” comics are certainly going to vary in terms of quality, but even without having read the rest I’ll wager that “Before Watchmen: Minutemen” will turn out to be one of the top-tier comics in the bunch. If you were planning on buying just one of the “Before Watchmen” comics, “Before Watchmen: Minutemen” #1 seems like a good choice to make. Cooke’s an immensely talented comic creator and this comic is no exception to that rule.