Review by C.J. Bunce
Writer/artist and New Frontier creator Darwyn Cooke is the visionary of Before Watchmen in the first two books released over the past 8 days, Before Watchmen: Minutemen #1, and Before Watchmen: Silk Spectre #1. In Minutemen, he serves as writer and artist, and he shares writing credits on Silk Spectre with Amanda Conner, who also serves as artist on Silk Spectre.
We know Amanda Conner from her run as artist on Green Arrow/Black Canary during the duo’s attempt at marriage. My take was that her art style was a bit too cartoony for the serious story of Oliver Queen’s doppelgänger trying to kill Dinah on their wedding night. Here, her artistic style is perfect for Silk Spectre, and this is high praise considering I had pegged Adam Hughes as perfect for the Silk Spectre standalone mini-series (but we can look forward to his work on the coming Dr. Manhattan series). In this retro/throwback world of Before Watchmen, when innocence reigned in America, the young Silk Spectre and her new boyfriend would easily fit into the pages of Archie Comics. That may not sound like a good thing but it works perfectly for the story being told. In fact, this may be Conner’s breakout project, showing her character depth as we’ve seen with Gail Simone’s complete command of Barbara Gordon as Batgirl and Oracle, and the retro portrayal skill we’ve seen from… Darwyn Cooke.
Cooke’s artwork on Minutemen reminded me over and over again of his retro look at the golden age of DC Comics in his New Frontier series. It had to have been the easiest decision in the world to tap Cooke for the retro world circa 1939 of the Watchmen back story.
Skipping over the contrived controversy surrounding Before Watchmen, anytime you mess with people’s icons you’re going to get people who won’t even check it out (like someone I knew who loved Star Wars the original trilogy so much they completely ignored and avoided any subsequent books and movies), they’ll give it the ol’ college try, or if it’s good, flat-out embrace the nostalgia of it. Unlike my pal Jason McClain, I don’t hold Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen with any particular reverence (see Jason and my earlier discussion here), so my hope is a story like this could stand on its own. Presumably the entirety of this new line of mini-series will intersect according to some grand master plan, culminating with the Watchmen series itself.
I have read Watchmen twice across a span of time so I do not remember all the nuances, other than Gibbons’ nine panels on a page that had symbology and often contrasting images with dialogue. I caught enough in Minutemen to know I am missing a great amount of the subtlety and symbology that I assume is present here. For those reading Before Minutemen before trying out Watchmen (yes, I am sure those people are out there!) I won’t give up spoilers here. But the future of Nite Owl and Silk Spectre, to me, was the best part of Watchmen, and these two were my favorite characters in the movie adaptation.
As to Minutemen issue #1, Cooke excels at giving us a Justice League-worthy back story for some Captain America era characters. The dialogue in both Minutemen and Silk Spectre is appropriate to the time period, better than I am finding in Ed Brubaker’s noir Fatale series, for example. Minutemen #1 introduces these Minutemen superheroes through the eye of an aged Nite Owl and his tell-all book Under the Hood. The innocence quickly fades as we meet Edward Blake, the Comedian, a seemingly well-intentioned do-gooder with serious psychological issues that forecast his ultimate downfall. Other characters are less familiar but entirely interesting despite getting less time devoted to them: Dollar Bill, who might as well be Captain America, a very cool Space Ghost mixed with Batman-type character called Hooded Justice, Mothman Byron Lewis who seems to foreshadow a sad and brief story, the slick-looking and tough avenging angel Ursula the Silhouette, and Captain Metropolis, wealthy ex-Marine who will put together the team.
Silk Spectre #1 flashes forward to the origin of not the original Silk Spectre of the Minutemen group, but her daughter, and the elder’s priming of the daughter to take over the Silk Spectre superheroine role. The elder’s public and disreputable past is thrown at the daughter from every angle, and we witness her breaking apart from the Kato-like training practice and peers that have casted her out of favor. With the bits of darkness and tragedy, Conner’s pencil work also draws out plenty of humor surrounding the angst of being a teenager in 1966 (applicable to any other time period, too).
Other interesting features include a tucked in ongoing secondary story in each issue (not enough to make any judgment on yet) and a higher quality cover shiny card stock.
So far the scope of Before Watchmen is epic, and the storytelling poignant. It makes this reader want to go watch the Watchmen movie. Nice work so far!