Before Watchmen was released in 2012 to the grousing of original co-creator Alan Moore and a blessing from the original series artist Dave Gibbons.
Fans at the time seemed to be evenly split on the matter as well, but greeted the new Watchmen books with the skepticism of a new Star Wars movie. I’d be interested in seeing a Venn diagram of original Watchmen fans and their reactions to both the limited prequel and also Zach Snyder’s 2009 film adaptation.
In short, one would be hard pressed to find a more controversial DC property writ large. One of the men responsible for revisiting the Minutemen was Darwyn Cooke. His untimely passing last week spurred this review, but truth be told we’ve been thinking about these books for a long time.
Darwyn provided both the story and his unique Golden to Silver Age pulp magazine style illustration to Hollis Mason’s story in Before Watchmen: Minutemen (6 issues) and also teamed up with Amanda Conner, co-writing her book, Before Watchmen: Silk Spectre (4 issues).
If you were on the fence about these books, now is a great time to honor Darwyn’s memory and rediscover this amazing work you may have overlooked.
Back in the 90’s when Swingers was all the rage (yeah, I went there), I would scour my school’s magazine library for gas station advertisements, winking lightbulbs and all sorts of retro design to (literally) cut and paste to make new art.
I was always extremely jealous of that cool style, drawn with a pen, perhaps a wash of a single color and dashes of Tex Avery’s cartoon “The House of Tomorrow”. Nothing appealed to me more than that aesthetic, as I sat listening to the chairman of the board on wax, smoking cigarettes in my fedora, pretending to be an Artist!
Darwyn’s illustration was all of the corny stuff and more, a Mad Men explosion of a simpler time when you could forge a driver’s license with penmanship, rattle scotch around in your tumbler and men tried their darnedest to be honorable. How this man was touched with such incredible skill to make things look ‘older’ we may never know. Except, in the industry he was known as a hard worker, perfecting his craft and always drawing until it was right.
I can’t say I was lucky enough to meet the man, except once at an iFanboy Boston Comic Con party I was close enough to him to see him in his smoking jacket. I was probably too shy and intimidated to say anything to him, but boy that party was a hoot! There was burlesque. And cupcakes. I hope Darwyn had a blast!
I’m truly sorry for everyone who knew Darwyn as a friend, this must be a very difficult time for them and for Darwyn’s family, obviously.
I don’t remember my first comics experience with Darwyn’s work, it was likely his landmark and award winning DC: The New Frontier, a Justice League origin tale set in 1953-1960. For those looking for a shorthand, the DC Animated adaptation is spot on.
In 2009 I picked up Richard Stark’s Parker: The Hunter (IDW), using the aforementioned 2 color (pen and ink with watercolor shades of wash for the pages) technique adapting the Donald E. Westlake novel.
The crime fiction adaptation was something unique to the format and the book looks and feels great. It’s the right size. Its hardcover. It’s old school. The story adaptation was like what happens when movies are adapted to the big screen successfully (a rare occurrence). It, and the sequels are among my prized comic possessions and will be dog-eared someday.
To the matter at hand, Before Watchmen. Darwyn’s name on the cover didn’t immediately sell it for me, but when I asked one of the iFanboys (Josh) if it was worth it (they could understand my skepticism) he said unequivocally “Yes”! If I only got ONE of the Before Watchmen titles, Minutemen was the series to read.
Nite Owl (Hollis Mason) struggles with his trusty dog Phantom to start his tell-all book about The Minutemen, Under the Hood. With panels in this book channeling Jack Kirby and out of this world page layouts honoring Gibbon’s original work, you can tell by the end of the first issue that Cooke ‘gets’ Watchmen. It may be easy for any Joe Chill from down the street to re-write or tell a Batman story, but it takes a knowledgeable cartoonist and pop culture historian to dip into the Watchmen world.
Given the task of beefing up how the Minutemen team came to be and retrofitting what was hinted at in the original volume was a huge undertaking. To have done this in such a tight story with left hooks you don’t see coming is just knock out spectacular. From Dollar Bill’s ill-fated revolving door death, to Edward Blake’s (The Comedian) toe-the-line beginning you get one complete story that adds to and does not detract from Watchmen as a masterpiece.
Every fan should consider this ‘canon’ as Darwyn nailed every detail from Hollis’ garage to the beginning of a complicated relationship between Sally Jupiter and her young daughter Laurie. Non-movie Watchmen, The Silhouette and Captain Metropolis , are given rich background stories as well as the fate of Hooded Justice. Before Watchmen: Minutemen serves as a perfect (note I didn’t say ‘near perfect’) prequel to Watchmen proper. Who better to bridge the Golden and Silver Ages together than The New Frontier‘s Darwyn Cooke?
The Silk Spectre series with gorgeous art by Amanda Connor picks up with Sally and Laurie having some mother daughter issues (addressed in both the comic and the film) and we see a bit of the spark of that.
Amanda does some great stuff with the nine-panel grid precedent set by Dave Gibbons and her girls and boys are gorgeous. Laurie ends up splitting home to San Fran where she indulges in all of the brotherly love and VW bus experiences you expect from the time.
The team of Darwyn and Amanda is truly special in this book, Connor bringing the femininity and Darwyn having fun with a different kind of retro story, one set in the tripped out days of The Summer of Love. It’s not all pot and acid though, the new Silk Spectre gets a costume origin and we see her actually become a super-hero, something she resents about her mother.
I wouldn’t put this Silk Spectre mini-series on the required reading list, except for that the synergy between these two volumes demands it. Both are written by a master and both artists are incredible, with distinctly different styles appropriate to the script. I also like what Amanda has done with the page and the clever daydream sequences that wouldn’t be out of place in a Deadpool or Harley Quinn comic!
The comics community and the world has just suffered a great loss, but we are all lucky enough to have his work live on for us to enjoy.
Both stories are available in a single collection, Before Watchmen: Minutemen/Silk Spectre.