While most of the movie sites and blogs you might be reading are knee-deep in summer blockbuster reviews this time of year (and I myself have been, and will continue to, review such cinematic fare at the other site you can catch me on, namely http://unobtainium13.com), I figured here at my main online “hangout,” I’d devote the month of June to something a bit different — comic book reviews. Comics, you see, are my “first love,” media-wise, and while I don’t spend every last dime I have on them as I did in days gone by, I do find there are still a few reasons to go into the local comic shop once in awhile, even though, generally speaking, I could really care less about the entire superhero genre. Consequently, most of what we’ll be looking at this month won’t be adventures of men in tights and women in less-than-tights, and we’ll primarily be concentrating on, shall we say, “alternative,” “creator-driven,” or “underground” fare here — stuff the “big two” have no interest in but that provides just about the only ray of light in a medium that has become, at least creatively speaking, even darker than usual as of late. If names like Dan Clowes, Chester Brown, Joe Matt, Craig Thompson, Art Spiegelman, etc., are unfamiliar to you, my hope is that 30 days from now they won’t be, and that you’ll have found yourself sufficiently intrigued by my musings on these artists’ work to give some of what they’ve written and/or drawn a go.
All that being said, the book I’ve chosen to kick off this entire series with is the premier issue of writer/artist Darwyn Cooke’s Before Watchmen : Minutemen, which is, as you can no doubt guess, superhero fare published by DC. Granted, the promise from the publisher is that this is supposed to be intelligent superhero fare that’s a notch above its contemporaries in terms of having actual artistic value, since DC knows they’ve opened one hell of a can of worms by even revisiting the whole Watchmen universe in the first place and the only way they can keep readers who might be “on the fence” about the project on board is to give them a reason to keep coming back every week (the various interconnected Before Watchmen miniseries will be appearing weekly until they’ve all run their course).
Make no mistake about it, though — my view is that Before Watchmen is a morally and ethically bankrupt endeavor from the get-go, and I agree with those, Watchmen co-creator Alan Moore included, who think these books have no actual reason to exist and that their publication shows nothing so much as how empty the well of new ideas has run at DC (which is not to say that Marvel is any better — a quick perusal of their monthly output will show at a glance that their assembly-line-style product is, if anything, even worse than DC’s). Still — Watchmen is the pinnacle of this particular medium for me, and I love these characters. Moore and artist/co-creator Dave Gibbons (who has apparently accepted a half million bucks from DC to give these new “prequel” titles his blessing, money which Moore refused) blew my teenage mind with their book when it first came out, and it still holds up extremely well to this day. So while I fully well sympathize and agree with all the arguments against this project, I still couldn’t resist giving the first issues, at least, of the various titles a whirl. I don’t feel to good about being that morally weak, but there are times when my curiosity gets the best of my ethics.
Honestly, though, I should’ve known better. Cooke is a creator whose previous work I’m unfamiliar with (as is the case with pretty much all the writers and artists working on these titles), and his art has a pleasing 1940s look and feel to it, but right off the bat there’s not much doubt that there isn’t a fraction of the intricate visual language going on in this book that we’re used to from something that bears the name Watchmen. While Gibbons’ panels in the original series were densely-layered works that revealed more the longer you looked at them, Cooke’s images are pretty, but ultimately disposable. The convey the mood and atmosphere of a time gone by nicely, but they don’t stick in your brain and demand a thorough and lengthy appraisal.
Which, frankly, pretty well goes for the story, as well. Simply put, nothing really happens here. Hollis Mason, the original Nite Owl, is seen sitting down, petting his dog, and writing his memoir, “Under The Hood,” chapters from which were presented as text pieces at the back of the first few issues of the original Watchmen series. We’re given brief glimpses of what said book has to say about some of the other costumed adventurers in the old Minutemen group, and that’s it. We learned a lot more about these characters in Moore’s text pieces, and all Cooke is doing is filling in a few blanks that we could just as well have surmised on our own. We don;t gain any new insight into what makes them tick, or even learn about exploits we didn’t already know about, per se — the entire issue is just a visual adaptation of stuff Moore either stated explicitly, or at the very least hinted at, 25 years ago.Furthermore, today’s “decompressed” writing style in mainstream comics, largely the brainchild of Grant Morrison, is a pretty transparent attempt to do nothing more than spread out what could, and frankly should, be a single-issue story out over the space of 5 or 6 issues, and it doesn’t suit the world of these characters at all, much less give the consumer good value for money. Frankly it’s a damn good thing that I wasn’t enthused about Before Watchmen, because then I would’ve felt even more cheated by a book I just dropped $3.99 on that can be read in ten minutes. As for rereading value — this issue certainly had none. I read it straight through again right after reading it and picked up absolutely nothing new, nor did I when I gave it a third go-round the next day.It’s certainly a far cry from the original series, which was so densely-packed with layer upon layer of meaning that each issue practically demanded rereading before you felt like you had a proper grip on everything you’d just taken in. And let’s not even talk about the “multiple covers” gimmick that DC in employing here (all three covers, by Cooke, Michael Golden, and Jim Lee, respectively, are shown here) in order to get you to buy this thing three times and pay inflated “collector’s prices” for the same book (the Lee cover is already going for $100 at my comic shop of choice).
In summation, then, let’s leave aside all the controversy for a moment, necessary as it’s been. Let’s pretend that somehow this whole thing isn’t a slap in the face to Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons (albeit a slap-in-the-face-with-a-check to Gibbons). Let’s, for the sake of argument, do exactly what DC is imploring us to do and “take this project at face value.” In that case, what we have here is a nicely-drawn, somewhat-competently-written (although the presence of things like shifting verb tenses lead me to wonder if it was really even edited) “flashback”-type story that does nothing more than tell us what we already knew. The Comedian was a bastard. The Silhouette was a lesbian. Mothman was a drunk who cracked up. Dollar Bill was a publicity stunt. Nite Owl was a good egg. That’s the most we can take from this book, and it’s shit we already had figured out. That’s the extent of the critical analysis we can take away from this first issue even if we play by the rules as DC sets them out.
But if we want to be realistic here, and admit that this prequel project doesn’t exist in a vacuum, then even if we again leave all moral and ethical qualms about it aside (I repeat,necessary as they are, don’t get me wrong), the simple fact is that this book doesn’t do anything to justify its existence, as ultimately as prequels, sequels, and remakes must. DC can’t have it both ways. They can’t tell us not to compare it to the original Watchmen while trying to cash in on the name and the reputation of that seminal work at the same time. They can’t say “here’s a Watchmen spin-off, now please don’t compare it to Watchmen.” Sorry, but life doesn’t work that way — if you don’t want this book to be compared to Watchmen, then don’t call it Before Watchmen and don’t feature Watchmen characters in it. Simple, right? And so is Before Watchmen : Minutemen #1. Simple, quick, rehashed, uninvolving, and ultimately pointless.