The Point is to Change the World (The Last War in Albion Book Two Part 5: Before Watchmen: Minutemen)

(14 comments)

Previously in The Last War in Albion: Actually, it basically just left off in the middle of More's lengthy description for the first panel of Watchmen.

Figure 849: The ending of Watchmen is foreshadowed
by its first panel. (Written by Alan Moore, art by Dave
Gibbons and John Higgins, from Watchmen #12, 1987)
THE SECOND ITEM OF REMARK IS A 1” DIAMETER SMILEY BADGE, COLORED A VIVID SUNSHINE YELLOW AS IT LAYS THERE IN THE GUTTER SMILING UP AT US AGAINST A BACKGROUND OF LURID BLOOD RED. IT HAS SOMEHOW LODGED IN THE GUTTER SO THAT IT WON’T GO DOWN THE DRAIN, AND SIMPLY REMAINS STUCK THERE, STARING UP AT US WITH ITS JARRINGLY INANE EXPRESSION. A SMALL SPLASH OF CRIMSON STAINS THE FRONT OF THE BADGE. A SINGLE TINY SPATTER ACROSS ONE BLACK CARTOON EYE ON THE FACE OF THE BADGE. THAT’S BASICALLY THE WHOLE OPENING IMAGE, UNLESS YOU WANT TO STICK A CANDY WRAPPER THAT’S ABOUT TO FLOAT DOWN THE DRAIN, IN WHICH CASE WE HAVE A PACKET OF MELTDOWNS, WHICH ARE LIKE TREETS (ENGLISH) OR M&M’S (AMERICAN) ONLY WITH LITTLE BRIGHTLY COLORED ATOMIC SYMBOLS ON THE WRAPPING. ONLY INCLUDE CANDY WRAPPING IF IT DOESN’T DETRACT FROM THE SIMPLICITY OF THE IMAGE WITH THE GUTTER, THE BLOOD AND THE BADGE, THOUGH, BECAUSE THIS IMAGE IS PRETTY IMPORTANT. IT GIVES US THE BLOOD SPATTERED SMILEY-BADGE, WHICH IS A PRETTY WORKABLE SYMBOL OF THE COMEDIAN’S MURDER, WHICH RUNS THROUGH THE ENTIRE SERIES, AND IT ALSO GIVES US A FAINT SUBLIMINAL PREDICTION OF THE ENDING WITH ITS IMAGE OF THE GUTTERS OF NEW YORK AWASH WITH BLOOD. ANYWAY, SEE WHAT YOU THINK AND LEAVE OUT THINGS LIKE THE SWEET WRAPPER IF YOU THINK THEY’RE EVEN SLIGHTLY DISTRACTING. WE’LL HAVE PLENTY OF TIME TO GET ALL OUR CUTE BRAND NAMES IN LATER ON IN THE SERIES. THE ACTUAL TEXT UPON THIS FIRST PAGE IS ALL TAKEN FROM RORSCHACH’S JOURNAL, WHICH WILL BE A MORE-OR-LESS CONTINUING FEATURE OF THE NARRATIVE THROUGHOUT THE SERIES. I MENTION THIS IN CASE YOU THINK IT MIGHT BE NICE TO VISUALLY DIFFERENTIATE BETWEEN RORSCHACH’S JOURNAL AND ANY OTHER CAPTION BOXES THAT MIGHT OCCUR BY GIVING IT A SPECIFIC COLOR A SPECIFIC SHAPE OR LETTERING STYLE OR SOMETHING. I SUPPOSE IT’D BE NICE IF WE COULD ACTUALLY GET SOME OF THE CHARACTER OF RORSCHACH HIMSELF BY THE WAY HIS JOURNAL IS WRITTEN, ALTHOUGH I SUPPOSE A SUITABLY WARPED-LOOKING STYLE OF HAND WRITING MIGHT BE OFF-PUTTINGLY DIFFICULT TO READ OR TIME CONSUMING AND DIFFICULT TO MAINTAIN. MAYBE YOU COULD SUGGEST A SORT OF SCRUFFINESS WITHOUT GETTING TOO ELABORATE, THOUGH. PERHAPS A MORE RAGGED EDGE OR A FAINT SPATTERING OF MESSY INK BLOTS INT HE BOXES HERE AND THERE AS IF THEY’D BEEN LETTERED BY A PEN WITH A SPLIT NIB OR SOMETHING. ANYWAY. THE OPTIONS ARE THERE, SO JUST DO WHAT YUOU WANT. IN FACT, IF YOU’RE ANXIOUS TO SEE ANYTHING THAT EVEN SMACKS OF VISUAL FLUMMERY THAN PLEASE FEEL FREE TO MAKE RORSCHACH’S BOXES THE SAME AS EVERYONE ELSES AND RELY UPON THE TEXT IN THEM TO SET THEM APART FROM OTHER NARRATIVE WITHOUT IMPOSING ANY VISUAL GIMMICKS NEEDLESSLY. OKAY. THAT’S THE PRE-AMBLE OUT OF THE WAY. SO GIVE IT ALL YOU’VE GOT AND LET’S SEE SOME GOOD DRAIN ART HERE” in 1985.

Indeed, that’s the crowning irony of Watchmen: that the work that established Moore as the most important voice in American superhero comics was also the work that predicated his furious departure from that industry, and one that Moore has backed away from in so many regards. The result is that the insistently visible authorial presence becomes defined as much by Moore’s retrospective absence from the text as it is by Moore himself. There is, as Morrison observes, a conspicuous god of Watchmen, but what is most conspicuous about him (and one can, at least, be confident about his gender) is a god comprised of negative space. The god of Watchmen is a tangible lack within it - a gap that demands to be filled in on the map of its psychic territory, to be named and outlined, as though doing so will finally, at last, serve to snap all the pieces into place and explain everything.
"Art that cannot move people effectively loses the war. Take the techniques that make it a masterwork and use them for changing the world. Your purity only hurts the reason you’re doing it. Do you want to feel self-righteous or do you want to win? I like to win. The point is to change the world.  A story is a machine that kills fascists. A story is a machine that kills whatever you want it to. Be afraid of stories, be afraid of storytellers. They are only trying to lie to you." - Kieron Gillen, Kieron Gillen Talks Watchmen
{Of the four main writers to work on Before Watchmen, it is clear that Darwyn Cooke did the best work. This is perhaps unsurprising given that, in his telling, DC originally tried to get him to write and draw the entire Before Watchmen line, with him negotiating down to the Minutemen and Silk Spectre series instead. He’s in several regards the one person you would think might do something unexpected with the concept. And it must be admitted, before any serious discussion of Before Watchmen can even occur, that “the best work on Before Watchmen” is very much a “least worst” sort of concept. Before Watchmen: Minutemen is a flawed but basically pretty good comic. Before Watchmen: Silk Spectre is an actually good and interesting comic that manages the genuinely impressive feat of mildly enriching Watchmen, but hardly an all-time classic of the form. That this is a genuinely impressive feat within the context of Before Watchme is, of course, is the problem underlying the line. And it is a fundamental problem to anyone who spends a bit of time thinking about it: “what is missing or lacking in Watchmen” is simply not a question with a ton of compelling answers. Every single one of these projects sets itself up to fail from the outset, simply because they invite comparison to a comic that only a handful of superhero creators have ever come close to matching. Indeed, arguably even Alan Moore, the one writer who can definitively and unambiguously be said to be capable of writing something as good as Watchmen only ever did so the once. The project is a self-evident folly. Which is likely why it generally failed commercially: the overwhelming majority of people who would buy this did so in order to find out whether it was going to be the disaster it looked like, and the number of people who are genuinely curious what a four-issue miniseries by J. Michael Straczynski about the exploits of Dan Dreiberg and a prostitute is going to be like is, in the end, fairly limited.

Figure 850: The Minutemen, as drawn by Dave Gibbons for the
1987 Who's Who update.
In this regard, then, Cooke got lucky: one of his two series was the Minutemen series, the one for which the problem of comparison is by far the slightest, and which thus always sounded like a perfectly reasonable idea for a comic. It is, after all, the one that Moore actually seriously considered doing himself at one point. As Gibbons noted in 1988, when the book was still under consideration as a future project (Moore, in the same interview, cagily suggested the book might be “in four or five years time, ownership position permitting”), “Minutemen appeals because it’s a different era and a different story.” Which is to say, it’s naturally insulated from at least some of the intrinsic problems of Before Watchmen. Only three of its main characters have any significant presence in Watchmen, which means that Cooke has a relative blank slate with his other leads. (And while he ultimately uses one of the three characters who have a significant presence in Watchmen as his narrator, Mason is ultimately still a much smaller character within Watchmen than either Jupiter or Blake.) 

Figure 851: The New Frontier ends with an
homage to the first appearance of the Justice
League. (By Darwyn Cooke, from The New
Frontier
 #6, 2004)
Cooke also has some advantages he brings to the table. He was best known for a tremendously acclaimed miniseries entitled DC: The New Frontier, which took place in the historical gap between the Golden and Silver Age eras of DC history, traversing from 1945 to 1960 (a similar stretch of time to that covered by Before Watchmen: Minutemen, which runs from 1939-62). It was very much a descendent of Moore’s work on superheroes, sharing Watchmen and Swamp Thing’s inclination to integrate the material history of superhero comics into their narratives: characters generally make their debuts within the story the same year that their comics first appeared, with Barry Allen becoming the Flash in 1956 and Hal Jordan the Green Lantern in 1959, for instance. More broadly, the endpoint in 1960 is not only the year that the Justice League of America made its first appearance (the event that serves as the book’s climax), but the year of John F. Kennedy’s election. The title The New Frontier comes from Kennedy’s speech accepting the Democratic nomination for the Presidency, a speech quoted at length over nine pages in the book’s epilogue, which builds to an homage to Mike Sekowsky and Murphy Anderson’s iconic cover to The Brave and the Bold #28, in which the Justice League first appeared. 

The term “new frontier,” which became a metonym for Kennedy’s vision of liberal American politics in general, is a fundamentally optimistic vision defined by a focus on improving American living standards and on the space race, and Cooke presents it as such - a fundamentally optimistic endpoint to the narrative. This is not to say that the story is uncritical - Kennedy/the Justice League provide an optimistic endpoint to a story that engages sharply with the problems of the era it depicts, most obviously in an absolutely chilling sequence about southern American race relations. Rather, it’s that The New Frontier, despite taking a sober-minded look at the culture of its time, remains basically positive about superheroes. In this regard, it is among the few obvious descendants of Watchmen to actually engage with superheroes in the way Moore has subsequently advocated - as he puts it, “there’s plenty of fun to be had with superheroes that aren’t grim. Even without psychosis or ulterior motives and all the rest of it. Superheroes are still an excellent vehicle for the imagination. You can play in this wonderful funhouse of ideas with superheroes. And that’s great… it doesn’t have to be depressing, miserable grimness from now until the end of time.” (And indeed, there’s an urban legend that Moore, who was in the midst of his second acrimonious departure from DC when The New Frontier was being released, asked DC to stop sending him complimentary monthly packages of their releases with the specific exception of The New Frontier.) 

Figure 852: The stacked three-panel layout
of The New Frontier, with an homage to
Watchmen in the last panel. (By Darwyn
Cooke, from The New Frontier #6, 2004)
The New Frontier also shares Watchmen’s interest in comics as a form. Where Watchmen is based on the nine panel grid, The New Frontier’s default page layout is a three-tier stack of page-width panels; of the fifty-nine story pages in the first issue, forty-six are three-panel pages. This is a simpler layout, to be sure, and The New Frontier does not engage in Watchmen’s complex play of paralleled narratives and object-to-object transitions. But it is a layout that tacitly evokes Watchmen’s nine panel grid, even as no actual pages of The New Frontier use the grid. More to the point, however, the wide panel layout is entirely appropriate for what The New Frontier is doing. The expansive panel size allows Cooke leeway to explore the bright spectacle of superhero comics as a genre, which in turn fuels the underlying optimism of the story. Cooke’s style is rooted in the cartooning tradition (he moved into the industry via animation), which means that his work evokes the lurid beauty of the best Silver Age artists (most particularly Jack Kirby), but is considerably more detailed and ornate than most of his inspirations (occasionally rivaling Gibbons in terms of the detail he works into panels). Aided by Dave Stewart’s frankly brilliant coloring, which has a positively painterly depth of palate to it, the result is a comic that is at one exquisitely beautiful and carefully thought through in terms of its visual grammar and form. 


Figure 853: The opening to Before
Watchmen: Minutemen
, which draws
both from Cooke's The New Frontier
and from Watchmen. (By Darwyn Cooke,
from Before Watchmen: Minutemen #1, 2012)
And Before Watchmen: Minutemen shares much of that formal thoughtfulness, taking an often playful angle on Watchmen’s style. The comic opens with two pages of four stacked page-width panels that evoke the lush visions of The New Frontier while also utilizing the object-to-object transitions that define Watchmen. The first page, for instance, jumps from a first person perspective of an infant Hollis Mason staring out of his bassinet, defined by an arc traversing the panel, to a skyscape of New York City from within a tunnel, also providing a central arc, to a Kirby Krackle-filled panel of the Solar System, the sun providing a third central arc, and finally to a panel of Doctor Manhattan’s forehead. Over these panels is a portentous monologue, in caption boxes that wind down the page in a backwards S: “You come into this world, and your point of view is narrow. If you’re lucky, it’s a safe and loving place. As you grow, your view of the world broadens and you struggle to find your place within it. If you’re strong, you learn to survive it.

Comments

Sean Case 1 year, 6 months ago

Depth of palette, not palate, shirley?

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Philip Sandifer 1 year, 6 months ago

Yeah, editing comes later. :-P

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C. 1 year, 6 months ago

Moore's script is the utter opposite of that "how to write a comics script to make an artist's life easier" thing that was popular on Tumblr a few days ago. though you get the sense he's writing in part to make Gibbons crack up.

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Spoilers Below 1 year, 6 months ago

Indeed, arguably even Alan Moore, the one writer who can definitively and unambiguously be said to be capable of writing something as good as Watchmen only ever did so the once.

I'm curious what your answer is for this one. I'd guess From Hell, but watch it be something totally out of left field like his somewhat under appreciated WildCATS run...

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Spoilers Below 1 year, 6 months ago

I recall reading that after a while, Gibbon's wife would go through the scripts with differently colored highlighters to mark the bits that were actual panel descriptions, so he'd know what to draw, but that might be apocryphal...

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Ice 1 year, 6 months ago

I may be misunderstanding, but I thought he was referring to Watchmen itself.

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Philip Sandifer 1 year, 6 months ago

I believe it was Gibbons himself who did that; and yes, the script pages reprinted in Absolute Watchmen are highlighted that way.

Moore's scripts are easily parodied, but I've always appreciated the way in which they give guidance not just on what to draw, but on why to draw it.

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Philip Sandifer 1 year, 6 months ago

Ice has the intended meaning. Note, of course, the "arguably." I'd personally say From Hell is superior to Watchmen, as are Snakes and Ladders and The Birth Caul.

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Daru 1 year, 6 months ago

"I've always appreciated the way in which they give guidance not just on what to draw, but on why to draw it"

Exactly why I really love Moore's scripts, it's a great approach that leaves a lot of room for the artist (speaking as one). Whatever problems he may have had with editors and comic book companies, I feel (I may be wrong) that Moore has a lot of respects for artists.

Beautiful artworks and colouring above by Cooke and Stewart on The New Frontier.

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Daru 1 year, 6 months ago

I never had any inclination to read Before Watchmen at all, but I received the Ozymandius issue as a gift - which felt a bit like getting an odd jumper that you'd never wear. I did read it though and was utterly underwhelmed, and it added zero for me to Watchmen.

But the Minutemen above looks pretty lush and I may look at it sometime.

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jet_and_joe 1 year, 6 months ago

I would just like to bring up the very interesting article Who Whitewashes the Watchmen? by William Leung for an alternative take on Darwyn Cooke's contributions to Before Watchmen. I haven't read any of Before Watchmen so can't actually comment on the quality of the actual stories, but I did find this to be an interesting article, and haven't seen it mentioned by anyone else here:

http://www.hoodedutilitarian.com/2013/05/who-whitewashes-the-watchmen-part-1/

http://www.hoodedutilitarian.com/2013/05/who-whitewashes-the-watchmen-part-2/

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Daru 1 year, 6 months ago

Oh and love the moment of seeing the section of the interview with Kieron Gillen and how it ties into essay titles so far. Look forwards to the upcoming titles and how they fit in (if it works like that). Excited about what is said about stories and storytellers.

"The point is to change the world." - *this* is how I feel about stories.

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Ice 1 year, 6 months ago

I've only had a chance to read a bit of part one, but this looks like a really interesting essay. Thanks for the link!

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jet_and_joe 1 year, 6 months ago

Make sure you read through the comments as well as they also make for some interesting reading, with both support for and against the main arguments in the article

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