Saturday, January 26, 2013

Darwyn Cooke's final word on "Before Watchmen"

"It'll never be like it was when it was new, but there's still plenty of life in this old baby."

This is how Darwyn ("Parker", "New Frontier") Cooke ends "Minutemen", the linchpin of the first wave of "Before Watchmen" books. The prequels were controversial while they were still in the concept stage, with the original "Watchmen" co-creator openly denouncing them, while deriding the company for opening a new channel for exploiting the comic book classic. DC countered by touting the talent involved with the relaunch, announcing a slew of mini-series that revisited the 1985 series, purporting to be a faithful to the original.

The ones that have seen completion so far have maintained a respectful attitude towards "Watchmen", paying close attention to plot details, and genuinely picking up on the stray threads, but staying away from a serious attempt to challenge (or even try to attempt) the original's formalism. "Night Owl", "Moloch" and "Silk Spectre" have settled for providing the back stories to some of the original "Watchmen" players, elaborating on the character motivations while maintaining the quasi-reality of the original.

The "Silk Spectre" was even co-written by Cooke, but it doesn't stray too much from the coming of age model mostly adopted by the other two series. And while there's still as many tie-in mini-series that have yet to conclude, it is the just finished "Minutemen" that is arguably the most important. Even among the line-up of solid mainstream-oriented creators signed by DC to revisit "Watchmen", Darwyn Cooke sticks out as the most potent creative voice. Brian Azzarello, the writer of "Rorschach" and "Comedian" is also a very influential writer, but one that remains a presence in DC's ongoing "New 52" initiative, despite his bias towards working with superhero material.

Cooke has, on the other hand, enjoyed a career that used the "New Frontier" prestige format series' success to ensure that he could be much more selective when it comes to his forthcoming projects. The writer/artist was the one DC turned to when they relaunched Eisner's "the Spirit", another major contribution to the medium, leading to his producing a series of graphic novel adaptations of Donald Westlake's "Parker" novels, garnering him even further acclaim, and cementing him as one of the Direct Market's strongest creative voices.

The decision to create a flagship "Before Watchmen" title came with the writer/artist announcing that he had a particular story to tell. Citing this as the only reason for his participation might have made his involvement with the "Silk Spectre" series slightly dubious, but it seemed to strengthen the sympathetic fan's decision to keep up with "Minutemen". If Darwyn Cooke was willing to devote his time and energy into a editorial-lead initiative that revisits the themes he worked with in "New Frontier", he would not go on to produces something that would only besmirch his reputation in a part of the comics culture that wanted nothing to do with "Watchmen" comics produced without Alan Moore's consent.

Yet, it's hard to look at the resulting series as a major argument, both for the creator's participation, or the continued existence of more unsanctioned "Watchmen" related material. While revisiting the Silver Age past of Moore and Gibbons' "Watchmen", the writer/artist takes a thorough approach and crafts a multi-layered narrative that jumps through different time frames, revolving around Hollis Mason, the original Night-Owl's desire to publish the book he wrote detailing the true history of the 1940s superteam. The manuscript shows up as a back-up in "Watchmen", fleshing out the alternative history and providing a better understanding of the dynamic between the various superheroes alluded to in the main narrative.

In the original, Moore and Gibbons use these pages to parody the genre's past and further embellish the unreality of the superhero ideal, when brought out in the open. The superheroes of the comics' idealized past were no paragons of virtue, but a dysfunctional band of misfits, satisfying dark cravings under the masks, and more often then not failing spectacularly to live up to any kind of ideal. Their story existed as a little more than a backdrop for a major reveal between two of the book's characters, with the rape scene shattering away all semblance of nostalgia.

In the original "Watchmen", the men and women of the Minutemen were highly sexual individuals, with the hideous incident being the final proof that they could never exist as a functional band of heroes. Having a superhero rape his team mate could never have happened in the comics' Golden Age, which is precisely why the original creative team proceeded to depict it, in their attempt to present the genre with deeper characterization and actual human violence.

The original Minutemen's villains are likewise completely forgettable - the whole point of the back-up material was in presenting the origins of these superheroes as people, full of human flaws but never outright evil and villainous. Cooke picks up on this, and his characterization of the Comedian as an anti-hero, and a deeply complex individual pertains throughout these six issues, but it also leaves him without the plot.

Thus, the writer/artist resorts to making "Minutemen" the coming of age story of Night-Owl, detailing his Minutemen years. In order to provide a sense of mystery, Cooke resorts to inserting an artificial plot involving a serial killer, which picks up on some of the hints regarding the team's characterization. The only way to make this prequel relevant is to draw out some of the original "Watchmen"'s side characters and build them up into fully realized people, while hinting at a dark secret of their mutual past.

Thus, "Minutemen" attains a strange relationship with the original text, that has relegated these characters to little more than one sentence cameos, parodying the stiffness of the Golden Age characters. Cooke takes these as a starting point, and uses them almost like a bad reputation these characters must escape, while proving themselves as real people. Night Owl, Silk Spectre and the Comedian, are obviously the strongest when it comes to this (as they all had supporting roles outside the back-up strip), but Cooke tries his best at elevating the characters such as the Mothman and Sillhouette, who were specifically designed as being miscast in the superhero community.

The writer/artist's insists on referring to them by their first names, adds a lot of personality to their make-up, trying to convince the reader that they are capable of supporting the narrative as key players. This counter intuitive approach is best illustrated when it comes to Dollar Bill, a man who dressed up in superhero suit to entertain the customers of a chain of banks he worked in. In the original "Watchmen", the character was presented as merely the butt of a dark joke on the part of the creators, but Cooke insists on him being a capable superhero, whose life ended in bizarre irony.

Narrating the story, the Night Owl begrudges the reader for assuming that the Dollar Bill was only a superhero who met his end because of his stupidity and the sheer impracticality of the traditional superhero uniform. At first, this seems like a misreading of the material, concerning the character that got his personal name out of a tie-in RPG sourcebook, but it proves crucial to understanding Cooke's effort. If the writer/artist was to acknowledge the ridiculousness of the situation, he would also acknowledge the key problem of the whole project.

Thus, "Minutemen" largely shies away from making any kind of meta commentary regarding the comic book medium, aside from presenting a few panels in the mock Golden Age artistic style. These act as excerpts from the superhero comics that idealized these character's adventures in the world of Watchmen, in contrast to the harrowing realism that supplanted them in the true story of Minutemen. In effect, Cooke insists that "Minutemen" tells the story of "Watchmen" in half the length, making the same juxtapositions that Moore and Gibbons depict in the characters' 1980s future.

The writer/artist seems to be saying that the rape of Silk Spectre wasn't the only notable event in these characters' past, but that there was a heretofore unknown whole other story boiling around the team's largely uneventful existence. Cooke uses the intrigue and ambiguity in Moore and Gibbons' portrayal of the Hooded Justice to get to the center of the child killer case, but the plot remains extraneous precisely because it's contrary to the group's original conception.

Dramatizing the Minutemen's pointless clashes with gimmick villains while the team collapses under its own weight could be considered a creatively dubious mission. Having the detailed flashbacks and flashforwards inside the Watchmen narrative while building to the climax around the Comedian's assault might be on par with the various re-visitations of the typical superheroes' origins, but DC was adamant that their "Before Watchmen" prequels amounted to more than that.

The resulting story has the requisite density, a high level of craftsmanship and a definite love for the original, but it fails to make a case for its existence, outside the commercial concerns. "Watchmen" was a success on the plot level, but it's applauded for its style and the ground breaking ideas it brought to the superhero genre it was deconstructing. Returning to the story after more than 25 years, and concentrating on tying up minor concerns from it's back-up strip is hardly the ideal vessel for producing major work in the medium.

In Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' hands, the story of a serial killer hunting superheroes quickly transformed itself into a major reexamination of the long dormant medium, while Darwyn Cookes' narrative involving a child killer inspired by Robert Louis Stevenson's children songs never transcends the tie-in format. In his homage to the original, the writer/artist has produced a capable tale, one that reads better than the genre's average, but basically amounts to fan service, giving the reader a continued look at the interesting situations teased in the Moore and Gibbons' back-ups.

There is a clear attempt to provide a working thematic framework and believable characterization, but the writer/artist's work ultimately puts the minor "Watchmen" plot concerns before the people who have created it. And while there would certainly have been a poorer "Minutemen" spin-off without Cooke's involvement, it speaks ill of the whole "Before Watchmen" initiative, when even the creator of his caliber isn't able to provide a potent enough reason for its existence.

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