NEW 52: Before Watchmen, A (Partial) Progress Report

I have a theory that Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke wasn’t a groundbreaking piece of work just because it featured the Joker shooting that crippling bullet into Barbara Gordon’s spine. Moore did two more shocking things that had never been done before. He humanized the Joker:

And he featured a scene where Batman and the Clown Prince of Crime share a laugh while simultaneously acknowledging things will never change, a sort of meta-commentary on the Batman/Joker dynamic that will always exist:

In Moore’s Watchmen, the character Dr. Manhattan can see the past, present, and future simulatneously, similar to reader’s ability to flip through the pages of a comic book, and it’s those little things that make Watchmen a masterpiece: there’s a ton of stuff that exists outside of the text that enhances the story within (and the fact that Moore’s Watchmen characters were intended to be the Freedom Fighters always added something for me). When DC announced its Before Watchmen series, featuring solo miniseries for all of the main characters, many fans and critics questioned the wisdom behind such a move, including myself. The biggest question: how could non-Moore Watchmen books ever possibly live up to the original? The answer? They better be good. Ideally they’d surpass the original (no lofty feat), but at the very least they’d be as-good as Moore’s seminal work.

I am not offering exhaustive coverage of the Before Watchmen series. I’ve only been reading Minutemen, Silk Spectre, and Dr. Manhattan, since the books are $3.99 apiece and I’m semi-embarrassed to be picking these up every time I walk into my local comic shop (my shame partially induced by the sneers of the judgmental scenesters staffing the place – what happened to out-of-shape nerds?). Every time I read a Before Watchmen book with their glossy covers and nostalgia-inducing vertical titles, I wonder: will this enhance my experience of Watchmen in general? Will I go back and read Moore’s masterpiece and enjoy it even more? Or will I be horribly disappointed, not just at DC’s money-grab ethos, but at the idea that subsequent Watchmen re-reads will now be tainted?

The first book I picked up was Minutemen, written and drawn by Darwyn Cooke:

The series focuses on Hollis Mason, the original Nite Owl, a hard-working, honest cop fed up with the moral decay of New York at the onset of World War II. In Moore’s Watchmen, Mason dispensed fatherly wisdom to his successor, Nite Owl II (Dan Dreiberg) before meeting an untimely end.

Throughout Minutemen, Mason is narrating his book Under the Hood, which would, in later years, cause tremendous grief to Silk Spectre (Sally Jupiter) but for now is used as a framing device to tell stories of his adventures with the Minutemen. A lot of the focus goes to Mason’s unrequited crush, a woman who is almost entirely absent from Moore’s Watchmen: lesbian heroine Silhouette, who’s on her own mission to rescue kids from…something with a name I’m not super comfortable typing into my blog, lest it show up in search results later on.

The good news: Cooke’s a capable storyteller and his art is superb, the series includes one great moment for Sally Jupiter (narrated by Sally in flashback at Silhouette’s grave) and a plot point that seems like it’ll retroactively add something horrible to Hooded Justice’s backstory.

The bad news: the first four issues strongly support the idea that there’s no reason for Minutemen to exist. On its own, with the plot points and structure transferred to a different set of characters (the Justice League?), this would be an excellent book. As a prequel to Watchmen, however, it’s extremely standard superhero fare offering nothing exceptional or unique to readers. I’m sure DC wasn’t aiming for “adequate” but Minutemen is destined for the who-cares pile.

A problem that also plagues Cooke’s work on Silk Spectre, another well-told, inconsequential tale set in the Watchmen universe.

The gist is this: Laurie Juspeczyk, a.k.a. Silk Spectre II, grows up under the tutelage of her domineering mother Sally Jupiter, a.k.a. Silk Spectre I. She has problems at school, falls in love with a boy, and runs away to become a free-wheeling, peace-loving, LSD-dropping hippy in late-’60s San Francisco, while breaking in her Silk Spectre costume at night.

Before I get to my next point, let me make things clear: I think Darwyn Cooke is awesome. I’m reading Minutemen and Silk Spectre because I enjoy his work a great deal. And Amanda Conner’s art is stellar – I found her Power Girl stuff a bit cutesy at times, but it suits Silk Spectre perfectly, to the point where I doubt anyone else could’ve drawn this book.

But aside from a few clever moments, there’s no reason this story needs to be part of the Watchmen universe. The storytelling is deft and the art is gorgeous…

…which would be more than enough to recommend the book, if it weren’t for that bothersome Before Watchmen label on the cover. The combination of girl power and flower power is just so far off from the tone and weight of Moore’s story that it reads like an Elseworlds tale. Another series that makes you wonder why they bothered in the first place.

Then there’s Dr. Manhattan:

Holy crap, I love this book. This is what the Before Watchmen books should’ve aspired to be. This is a proper companion piece to Moore’s work. It gets the tone right and it creates an utterly fascinating story to boot:

Note the way the frames set in the past are bordered by what looks like the weathered, yellowed pages of an old comic book, while the frames set in the near-present are a little more white (and in the scenes on Mars, they’re completely white). Just one of the subtle, genius touches to be found in Dr. Manhattan, a book for which I could not be more of an unpaid whore.

The book, drawn by Adam Hughes and scripted by J. Michael Straczynski (whose excellent Dial H for Hero/Batman team-up in The Brave and the Bold will be reviewed here soon) uses boxes as a recurring theme and the phrase “What’s in the box?” as a narrative refrain. It’s remarkably effective. Jon Osterman died in a box during an “intrinsic field” experiment gone wrong. The Comedian is lowered into the ground in a box. Comic book characters are trapped in a series of boxes (frames). And the book itself is a puzzle box: questioning what would happen if Osterman hadn’t died in that accident, and then branching into a number of possible futures from there:

I don’t know if there’s ever been a comic book that used the thought experiment Schrödinger’s cat as a blueprint, but it works marvellously here. And, like Schrödinger’s maybe-dead, maybe-alive cat-in-a-box, Dr. Manhattan allows its parallel realities to exist at the same time, giving preference to neither. Perhaps it’s no accident that the book explores the idea of what might have been, since Before Watchmen as series is a giant what-might-have-been experiment on par with Schrödinger’s famous brain teaser:

If you scroll up to the top of the page, you’ll notice in that first image of Killing Joke the elegant transition between the Joker reaching for a glass proffered by his late wife and the Joker solemnly reaching toward a carnival attraction. It’s not just the disparity between these two panels (his old life versus his new life) that makes them effective, it’s what Joker’s looking at that adds that little extra something: he sees himself reflected in his wife’s words, and then he sees himself reflected in the garish ridiculousness of the fake clown:

Watchmen was full of those kinds of moments, and though Straczynski’s efforts aren’t as beautifully calculated as Moore’s, they’re still pretty effective:

I’m not sure how Nite Owl, Rorschach, The Comedian, or Ozymandias are doing, but Minutemen and Silk Spectre are solid (if superfluous) books, and, unless issues three and four are giant letdowns, Dr. Manhattan‘s on track to be one of my favourite titles of the year.

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3 Responses to NEW 52: Before Watchmen, A (Partial) Progress Report

  1. collecty says:

    Reblogged this on Collecty.

  2. I’ve been introducing a co-worker to comics over the last few weeks, and the first thing I gave him to read was Killing Joke. I think Watchmen is a little bit beyond his ken right now, but I look forward to dropping it on him later.
    I’ve never been the slightest bit curious about any of the “Before Watchmen” titles, though I have to admit the talent they pulled together to create them is really impressive.

    That JMS “Brave and the Bold” issue is one of my favorite single issues ever, and I really look forward to your review.

    • I like Straczynski’s Flash/Blackhawk “Brave and the Bold” issue as well (though I’m not crazy about the somewhat heavy-handed patriotism).

      I think “The Dark Knight Returns” might be a good entry point as well – it’s an alternate future, so there’s no messy continuity to follow. All you need is a vague knowledge of the major players in Bat-lore (Superman, Joker, et cetera) and it’ll still make sense.

      Though if I knew somebody was interested in getting into comics, I’d probably give them one of the earlier “Astro City” books, since all the stories work independently but compliment each other if you’ve read the other books.

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