Posts Tagged ‘darwyn cooke’

So, now that we’re onto our first second issue (“first second”? That sounds inherent contradictory, but it’s not) of this whole Before Watchmen prequel-a-palooza, I have just one question (for now — I have a much bigger one that we’ll get to in due course) for writer-artist Darwyn Cooke and DC’s editorial “brain”trust : why didn’t you guys just start with this one first?

Seriously, this has all the makings of a fairly solid first issue — not a whole lot happens (still), but rather than a quick bit of pointless re-introduction to the characters individually (as if anybody reading this series wouldn’t already be familiar with all the principal players in the first place), this time around original Nite Owl Hollis Mason’s reminiscences take us back to the first-ever time the “mystery men” (and women) of days gone by functioned together as a group, a publicity-stunt fiasco of a “mission” that goes wrong, then plunges us, in fairly short order,  into what I assume will prove to be the meat of the story — a child abduction case first worked by the Silhouette, later joined by Mothman and our erstwhile narrator (for all the good they do), and soon, one would think, to involve the rest of the members of the team.

It’s still nothing spectacular by any stretch, but it’s an interesting enough little should-be-first-chapter that’s, unfortunately, seriously let down by a couple of questionable (to put it kindly) choices that Cooke makes at the end. If you don’t want things “spoiled” for you I suggest you stop reading right now (unless you just plain don’t give a damn, that is, in which case why are you even reading this at all ?), but if you’ve perused the contents of this book already, you probably share my absolute bewilderment at just what the fuck Cooke was thinking with those last few pages, to wit —

Our “heroes” enter a warehouse looking for a missing boy, while back at Minutemen HQ, that evening’s team meeting having broken up, Captain Metropolis coaxes Hooded Justice into hanging out for a little bit of lovin’ (there’s an off-“camera” exchange between the two where HJ tells Nelly to “silence your whining” that’s positively priceless) and gets considerably more than he bargained for when the burly fella ties him up to the bed and decides to show him how real closeted gay heroes go about this stuff.

Now, if the juxtaposition of gay sex, even (it could be argued) a decidedly less-than-consensual form of gay sex with child abduction weren’t offensive enough in and of itself, Cooke’s decision to throw in what for all intents and purposes appears to be a flashback to a circus scene in Germany where a child wanders off into some sort of nightmarish unpleasantness while we read a Robert Louis Stephenson nursery rhyme really muddies up the waters. When is this taking place? My initial supposition was that this was supposed to represent Hooded Justice as a kid, since there were vague intimations in Hollis Mason’s Under The Hood text pieces back in Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ original Watchmen series that HJ might have been a famous German strongman named, if memory serves me correctly, Rolf Muller, and the style of dress and other period trappings clearly suggest a late-1800s time frame, but the scene the kid stumbles upon, which I won’t give away specifically, is more like something right out of the Third Reich, which would suggest that it’s happening roughly contemporaneously with events in this series. To further complicate matters, the appearance of a hooded figure in the distance could either represent a shadowy, mysterious personage that the young Rolf turns to for help, an anonymous friend who proceeds to rescue him from the situation (immediately burning this sort of archetype into his consciousness as a representation of justice, even a savior that, as time goes by, morphs into an unattainable sexual ideal for which he longs and/or strives), or maybe, just maybe, that hooded figure is our guy HJ himself, and the lost kid is the one the other characters have been looking for and, at the conclusion of this segment, find — hanging from a noose in the warehouse they’ve been casing, while HJ’s “costume-noose,” if you will, dangles over Captain Metropolis’s head as he’s being — uhhmmm — ya know, mounted.

Frankly, it’s pretty hard to comprehend what the hell Cooke’s driving at here in Minutemen number two ( the story in question being contained within only two covers this time around — the “main one” being by Cooke and the alternate being by Jose Luis Garcia Lopez, shown here in the order I just mentioned ’em), but he’s playing with fire if he thinks drawing equivalancies between homosexuality, even sadomasochistic expressions of homosexuality, and child abduction and murder is, in any way, well — tolerable. The sad truth, even in this day and age, is that way too many people still assume gay men are child-predators, and guys who are into BDSM are probably viewed as being even more dangerous by Mr. and Mrs. Middle America. I’m probably the wrong person to be making this argument, being that sex with another man and sado-masochistic sex are nowhere to be found on my “bucket list” either together or separately, but it’s just a fact that gay folks, as well as folks into BDSM whether gay or straight, are just as harmless and “normal” as me or — I assume — you (whoever “you” might be). These people have to deal with enough prejudicial bullshit as it is, and this kind of thing doesn’t do anything to help matters at all. Quite the opposite, in fact.

Granted, you could make an argument that Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons were playing with similar fire with the whole Comedian-tries-to-rape-Silk-Spectre-and-years-later-she-has-consensual-sex-with-him-and-gives-birth-to-his-daughter thing, but that was Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. They knew what they were doing and how to handle that dynamite with care and precision. So far, Cooke has done nothing to earn our trust to the same degree, and it’s that same level of belief in an artist’s ability  that’s required to not close the cover on this book with an unpleasant taste in your mouth.

So, the ball is in Darwyn Cooke’s court now (not that it wasn’t from the beginning, but you know what I mean). He’s delivered solid period-piece style art for the last two issues, and this issue things at least got moving story-wise, but he’s left some heavy, uncomfortable question marks hanging in the air here, ones that might reveal some seriously retrograde attitudes about both gay people and people involved in the BDSM “lifestyle” — questions that are doubly offensive to people who are both homosexual and into a little bit of rough fun. He’s gotta thread a really fine needle right out of the gate in the next issue, and the first two installments give no indication whatsoever as to whether or not he’s up to the task. We’re either headed for a complex story that challenges preconceptions in regard to sexual “norms,” or we’re headed into a deep morass of homophobic, anti-“alternative”-sexual-practices nonsense. I enjoy the feeling of not knowing where an artist is going to go with his or her work next, but I’m afraid I might have an ugly inkling as to what Cooke’s got in store. I sincerely hope he proves me wrong.

One thing I’ll say right off the bat when it comes to the first issue of the second Before Watchmen miniseries, Silk Spectre — the art, by the very able Amanda Conner (who also co-wrote the script along with Minutemen writer/artist Darwyn Cooke) is absolutely stunning. Conner utilizes the  familiar Watchmen nine-panel grid developed by Dave Gibbons (yay! glad to see it back!) in the original series, but whereas Gibbons put his grid to use depicting grim n’ grimy urban decay, Conner delivers a modern update on the good old-fashioned romance comics look, with smooth, flowing lines that capture the youthful innocence (and naivete) of her central character, a teenage version of Laurie Juspeczyk/Jupiter, better known to all of us Watchmen aficionados as the (second) Silk Spectre. The lush and wide-ranging palette employed by colorist Paul Mounts complements Conner’s guardedly-optimistic pencil and ink work perfectly, and the result is an evocative, even forlorn at times, visual feast. You get the sense from looking at this book that Laurie knows her innocence is coming to an end, and is both eager to cleave to whatever elements of it still provide her comfort, as well as to shed those parts of it that are holding her back.

And speaking of holding her back — that’s exactly how she sees what her mother, Sally, the original Silk Spectre, is doing by forcing her to become a second-generation costumed crime-fighter. While it’s painfully obvious to anyone with a pulse that Sally’s trying to relive her own youth vicariously through her daughter, it’s also abundantly clear that Laurie doesn’t want much to do with the profession her mom’s chosen for her, and that central tension is what will lie at the core of the book, at least by all indications from this first issue.If that sort of typical coming-of-age fare doesn’t grab you, though, then neither will Before Watchmen : Silk Spectre #1. Because the other various plot elements sprinkled in — Laurie being ridiculed at school over who her mother is and what she used to do for a living (both during and after her spandex adventuring career), then falling in love for the first time, then running off with the guy she’s so smitten with — are pretty standard tropes as far as this whole genre goes, as well. It’s not a bad read, per se, by any means, but it’s not a necessary one, either, and while it’s rather interesting, as an exercise in variety if nothing else, to see the teen romance thing filtered through the prism of the Watchmen universe, this first issue, like last week’s Minutemen premier, doesn’t really add anything to our knowledge and/our understanding of the character. It’s just telling some story from her youth that so far doesn’t seem in any way especially compelling, even if it is pleasant enough lightweight reading.And it’s that word right there — lightweight — that pretty much sums up my disappointment with the first couple installments of this Watchmen prequel bonanza in a nutshell. Both Minutemen and Silk Spectre have been throwaway reads that don’t do much apart from look nice and avoid explicitly contradicting what’s come before. They haven’t proven that these books actually have any point apart from crass commercial considerations (speaking of which, this also comes packaged in three different covers, as shown above, by Conner, Dave Johnson, and Jim Lee, respectively). Not upsetting the apple cart might be enough to satisfy some readers, but when you’re packaging your books specifically as an extension of the Watchmen legacy, it’s probably fair to say that a good number of us are expecting something more challenging, thought-provoking, and dare I say even revolutionary than what we’ve seen so far. We’ll see what the first issue of Comedian has in store for us later this week, and whether or not it can finally — hopefully! — justify why these titles are even being published in the first place. So far, though, it seems that Alan Moore’s — uhmmm — vociferous reservations about the whole enterprise were entirely justified.

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, 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.