August 2, 2013

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Before Watchmen: Minutemen/Silk Spectre

Written and Illustrated by Darwyn Cooke (Minutemen)
Written by Darwyn Cooke and Amanda Conner (Silk Spectre)
Illustrated by Amanda Connor (Silk Spectre)
DC Comics

Hollis Mason wants to tell the true story of the Minutemen, but when his former friends and allies object, he must reflect on whether the truth will set him free--or cause more harm than good. In the second half of this collection, Laurie rebels against her mother Sally's oppressive control, fleeing to San Francisco, where she finds sometimes you can't escape your destiny.

These are just two of the stories to be found in the world...Before Watchmen.

All of these mini-series were controversial when they came out, with some unable to accept that a publisher might want to try and earn money on something that belongs to them. It briefly became a touchstone in the creators rights fights that blazed, with Jack Kirby's estate making a ludicrous claim for Spider-Man and the continuing saga of who owns the rights to Superman.

I am not here to debate any of that. I'm here to tell you about two of the mini-series, now packaged together (quite correctly, in my opinion), and whether or not they're worth reading as comics.  As a dual piece of disclosure:  1) I think Watchmen is a good maxi-series that is highly overrated in the comics canon and 2) DC was kind enough to provide me with a review copy of this collection. (Thanks!)

Long-time readers of my reviews know I am a big fan of both Darwyn Cooke and Amanda Conner, so I decided that these were the series I wanted to start with. If I didn't like them, there'd be no hope for the others in the collections. The short version is while you can debate whether or not these stories needed to exist, Cooke and Conner do an excellent job of creating stories that fit within the spirit of Alan Moore and David Gibbon's world. They don't try to make anyone better by restoring their image in a prequel or give a reason for them to be a horrible person. If anything, especially in the case of the Minutemen, these stories show that the "heroes" of the Watchmen universe have always been flawed, something I think Moore would grudgingly approve of, if he ever did read them.

In the Minutemen series, Cooke cleverly uses Hollis Mason as his focal character. The idea that the book Mason wrote versus the one he wanted to write is an excellent conceit, allowing Cooke to examine several ideas at once, allowing the book to be meta-commentary. While the story works fine showing from their very inception, the Minutemen were built more on image than truth, setting the stage for the ultimately collapse and failure of heroes as time goes on, it also makes a larger case.  We speak unreservedly about "The Greatest Generation" but they were as human as we are, making decisions that weren't perfect. Just like how I am sure my grandfather (who refused to speak one word about his war years) did things that weren't completely ethical to survive, we see the Minutemen doing all sorts of things that show them as imperfect--but very human.

Without giving away too much of the story, which I really do think fans of Cooke--especially his Parker work--should read, as Hollis recounts his own sins and those of his fellow heroes, we see people making decisions they thought were right at the time, though not always for the best reason. His work is a bit uneven for some of the characters but overall it works well and is intricately plotted. Everything we see in the first issue slowly works its way through until it all links together in the final scenes.  In the end, Hollis Mason is a protector at heart, and his decisions regarding the book perfectly reflect that.

The transition to the second mini-series, about Laurie's journey of growth and exploration, is so seamless I had to take a moment to realize I was reading the new story. Kudos to the collection editor for that. Co-writing with Amanda Conner, Cooke once again takes pains to make the story link from start to finish. Rather than explore the imperfections of a group of heroes, this one narrows its focus to Laurie and Sally. We see that Sally, embittered by her exploitation, wants to make Laurie tough but shield her from any outside influences, save the seemingly harmless Hollis Mason. Once Laurie realizes she can never be her own woman, she escapes to San Francisco, where life is all about exploring how you feel.

Of the two stories, this one is more true to the superhero genre. Laurie cannot fight her impulse to do what's right, and starts sneaking out to fight an inspired crime ring, led by a Frank Sinatra analog (with a Jimmy Hendrix-like henchman). The Chairman, as he is called, wants to put commercialism back in music and does it with a deadly drug. While Laurie goes off to be a hero, there's a human cost she doesn't consider. Meanwhile, Sally shows she's not above stooping to base measures to get Laurie back.

There's only one really big problem with both of these stories, and it's the need to try and call back a bit too hard to Watchmen, particularly the final scene where Laurie meets other heroes for the first time as a crime fighter herself. I'm not sure if it's Cooke or Conner to blame, but Laurie's dialogue really overdoes it.

Still, that's a minor blip in two very strong stories. They are tales of broken heroes, shattered images, and a desire for control in a world filled with chaos, not unlike the stories of Joseph Conrad. It's a bit of a dismal worldview, but the concept makes for great, moody work.

Speaking of work, I realized I haven't talked about the art yet. Both Cooke and Conner are at the top of their games here. Anyone who read New Frontier or the Spirit knows Cooke's ability to draw in a Golden Age style, and his ability to change the appearance of his art on a dime. He does just that in Minutemen, switching up the art to reflect the time period. In some cases, we even get Cooke's homage to 1940s comics. The work here reminds me most of his Parker illustrations, with tight panels, quickly moving action scenes, and no fear of showing blood. Cooke packs so much emotion in his art, placing characters to give you just the right feeling about them, without having to add a word of dialogue. His world feels like a metropolis of the World War II era, and is given just enough detail without going overboard and detracting from the characters themselves, who are the focus of the piece.

But the biggest thing that impressed me was Cooke's handling of the Comedian, both visually and in terms of the overall story. From his first appearance as a kid who's just barely above those he fights to the shadowy figure doing the government's dirty work, Cooke paints him as being both the only realist in the room *and* as the one who is most amoral. Life has made him see only its darkest nature, and he reacts (and is shown) accordingly, especially by the end. When we last see Comedian in the Minutemen mini, he's cloaked in darkness and shadow, embracing his role. Yet at the same time, he's the only one who really knows the truth--showing how much of a dark joke life is.  It's an amazing combination of the art coming together with the story.

Amanda Conner's work, meanwhile, features her trademark facial expressions all over the mini-series. Despite the dark tone, Conner's nose wrinkles and eye-rolls still make their appearances, bringing a bit of light to the proceedings. Her style could not be more different from Cooke in overall look and feel. Conner's art has a more open-ended feel. There's not a feeling of claustrophobia when you view it. Her characters have a looser, more cartoonish look to them, but it doesn't mean they can't do horrible things. In fact, because of her art, the violence often feels more visceral, since the characters involved feel more human than Cooke's chiseled work.

Like Cooke, Conner has no problem switching styles, as we see here in brief fantasy panels that show Laurie's mindset at various moments of her story. She does a great job with the backgrounds, really selling the idea of the free-love era. Conner is not afraid to draw naked folks of both genders, so just be aware if you are offended by that. What's great, though, is that these figures are of different races, ages, and body shapes, not the stereotypical naked woman that we see in a lot of comics.

In her action scenes, Conner isn't afraid to allow the pace to flow into situations that another artist may not be comfortable trying to sketch out. Because of this, Laurie's fights are very open-ended, with legs flailing, bodies moving in awkward poses, and other ways that keep the story visually interesting. Conner and Cooke are masters of their form, and I wish more artists would emulate them.

If you can get past your potential prejudices about the idea of Watchmen prequels, these are high-quality stories from two comics pros that have few equals in comics. They're true to the source (sometimes a bit too much so) yet stretch them in directions that expand upon the world, just like a good superhero story should. This set of stories is highly recommended.