Review: Before Watchmen: Minutemen #1 by Darwyn Cooke

Before Watchmen: Minutemen #1 (Of Six)

Publisher: DC Comics
Writer: Darwyn Cooke
Illustrator: Darwyn Cooke
Colorist: Phil Noto
Letterer: Jared K. Fletcher
Release Date: 06/06/2012

Darwyn Cooke has to be one of the most passionate creators I’ve ever had the privilege of reading. The comic book writer and artist has a reverence to the medium that few ever showcase, as evidenced by DC’s historical retelling in DC: The New Frontier, his take on the legendary Will Eisner’s The Spirit, and his collaboration with Ed Brubaker where they reworked Catwoman into an icon that stuck for the past decade. He has roots on Batman: The Animated Series and Superman: The Animated Series, and his graphic novel Batman: Ego gets to the character like never before.

I say all this because I know Before Watchmen has been met with mixed reactions, to put it lightly. I don’t want to get into that. My initial reaction to the project was this, if you must know: “Really? That seems unnecessary.” I then saw the names attached, and I thought, “I enjoy a lot of those artists and writers. I’d like to know what they feel they have to say.” Darwyn Cooke is one of those creators who, when they speak (or write or draw), I want to listen. He’s never written a line of dialogue or drawn a curvy line on Selina Kyle that seemed misplaced or doing it for the sake of doing it. I feel that way about many of the creators on this entire project: Brian Azzarello, Amanda Conner, J.G. Jones, and the rest.

I wanted to make that clear before we get underway, that I’m not looking into Before Watchmen as a whole as a cash grab or a pedestal to debate the original work or it’s creators. These are comic books crafted by people who I’ve found have a passion for the art of the comic book and what it can be and mean, and I’d like to know if they delivered.

It’s a comic book. This is an imaginary story. Aren’t they all?

Synopsis

Hollis Mason, the Nite Owl, has retired. He’s just written a novel, Under the Hood. It’s a tell-all book about his time as a mystery man, or as put elsewhere in the story, “a masked adventurer”. His memoirs have left him to riminsice about 1939, when the costumed vigilantes first came onto the scene. Mason recounts his recollections of Captain Metropolis, Silk Spectre, Hooded Justice,  Silhouette, Dollar Bill, The Comedian, Mothman, and himself. While he gives his own biased accounts, we’re treated to the realities as he narrates, and they are a bleak and candid eye-opener to the characters and world. The Minutemen haven’t officially formed yet, and we see how that came about.

Analysis

Before Watchmen: Minutemen is the most appealing title of the seven miniseries due out: it focuses on the Minutemen and sets the stage for the world we saw in 1986’s Watchmen. It’s worth noting that Alan Moore said if Watchmen was well-recieved, he and artist Dave Gibbons would be interested in telling a Minutemen prequel, so the idea and groundwork have been laid. The problem is that we’re now 26 years out from the original story, and this isn’t Moore and Gibbons telling the tales.

Knowing that, I felt disconnected when I read this. I liked what was presented, and if this is an indication of what the other six books will be like, I’m interested, but it still felt wrong.

Having read comic books for the past 20 plus years, I’m familiar with the concepts of rotating creative teams and stagnant and changing status quos, but I also know Watchmen is it’s own isolated story, not a franchise created by editorial committee like so many X-Titles or Justice Leagues – I enjoy Batman: Year One and The Dark Knight Returns for what they are, but if anyone but Frank Miller touches those stories, I can’t help but feel a bit put out (and I did, with Batman: Year Two). It’s a focused event with a purpose, and with something as intimate and intricate as Watchmen, it’s hard for me to have confidence that Darwyn Cooke is doing exactly what was intended, and if it’s not what was intended, then I have to ask, “Why do it?”

Darwyn Cooke hasn’t let me down: the art is gorgeous and maintains his own style while still paying homage to the subtle symbolism and direction that Dave Gibbons used to make Watchmen as deep as it was. I admit that early on I didn’t feel like his style suited the Watchmen universe, but that quickly changed when Hooded Justice came on the scene, and maintained for the rest of the issue. The script is simple but effective and truly does feel like a lost chapter from Watchmen‘s archives; the voices are spot on, the pacing is effective, and the mood is sobering and gritty as ever.

Like The Watchmen, The Minutemen are real people in costumes. They have personality disorders, disturbing habits, personal politics, and personal agendas. While this was hinted at in the original series, it’s still disarming to see the Golden Age of Super Heroes presented so stark and mean-spirited, especially under Cooke’s unique style – while New Frontier hinted at a similar world (while still grounded in history), we only saw glimpses out of the corner of our eye; Minutemen makes us open the closet door and look under the bed and come face to face with it. I think that contradiction of Cooke’s usually warm and inviting art against his spartan and raw story and world is what makes this issue such a success, and is what drives me forward to read the rest.

What let me down is the scope of the story- not Cooke’s scope, but in considering this as a part of the mythos. While this is something I look forward to being told, it’s not truly what might or should have been told. There are books where you’re told “It worked better on film.”There are movies where you are told, “Well, the book was better.” There are films where we are told, “It’s not the director’s cut they wanted to present, but the studio did this. Find the director’s cut.”

I enjoy adaptations and viewpoints, and I am one of those people who gladly will seek those things out, just to experience it. I can never do that with Minutemen. As a reader, that irritates me, and kept getting in the way of my “neutrally objective” approach I went into this hoping for.

That said, we’re one issue in. I’m not going to damn anything with only one issue at hand. As a Darwyn Cooke comic book, this issue was pitch-perfect, and as a superhero comic book, this is one of the better first issues any title could ask for to hook readers in and get their curiosity primed: there’s action, there’s questions, there’s great art, and an enticing story being teased at without being too coy and unsatisfying.

Should you read it?

Yes. Darwyn Cooke’s issues are invaluable for any writer or artist looking to learn, and here is his newest showcase. Phil Noto’s colors are amazing. If you love comic art, you really should look at this. The story won’t convert you if you’re predisposed to thinking this is a terrible idea. If you can keep an open mind, I have the feeling that Minutemen and Before Watchmen as a whole will certainly be an interesting read, and I look forward to all the behind the scenes information that will surely come forth in the coming months, because that will undoubtedly be the meatiest part for any comic fan.

Also, if you do dislike the idea of Before Watchmen, I’d like you to at least read this one issue to whet your axe before you grind it. I’m a firm believer in the mindset that if you’re going to dislike something, you should experience it and be confident in why.

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